Up until now, I'd never read Elizabeth Bear. If I'm being honest, I couldn't have produced the titles of anything she'd written. That isn't to say I didn't know who she was -- she's a visible figure in the genre community and an active Tweeter -- just that I hadn't been exposed to her actual work. When her new novel showed up on my doorstep, I made it a priority. Joining a wave of 2011/2012 fantasy firmly couched in Middle Eastern and Asian influence, Range of Ghosts is an epic scale love story that tries to appeal fans of both romance and high fantasy and succeeds by any metric.
Egads! Did I say romance? Normally, the mere mention of 'romance' sets off alarm bells in my head, calling to mind smoldering glances and heaving bosoms (not that I don't like heaving... never mind). For those who share my reticence, don't worry. Range is a love story, but not a romance. With that in mind, my first reaction to what I was reading came around the fifty page mark where Bear writes the best sex scene I've read in fantasy. To whet your appetite:
She was softness, lush dimpled softness of arms and flanks wrapped around strength, like a bent bow. She was the fall of cool hair across his throat and his burning face, like water to a man sick with sun. She was the smell of sweat and pungent oils. She was the warmth of the night, and seventeen moons rose over her shoulders while she rode him with the purpose and intensity with which she raced her mare.
Of course, now all the readers of George Martin, Joe Abercrombie, and Brent Weeks are saying, not for me! And they might be right. Range isn't hyper violent, or unduly action packed. The pace is smooth, and even. There is violence and action, but it's carefully inserted (not a euphemism), representing a culmination of tension and then over again in a flash.
Instead, Bear's novel is carried on the back of a thoughtfully constructed and flawlessly articulated world. That isn't to say she's dumping information left and right, rather she instills an inherent sense of wonder that pervades, and in many ways overwhelms, the characters and plot. It's not that her plot or characters are weak, the world is just that good. With a different sky for every kingdom, a system of magic that has costs and limitations, and a cultural depth that codes realism, Range is a thoughtful exploration of culture and the right to rule.
On the Khaganate steppe a hundred moons dot the sky, one for each of the male scions of the Great Khan's line. In the Uthman Caliphate those moons are no where to be seen:
Mukhtar ai-Idoj, al-Sepehr of the Rock, crouched atop the lowest and broadest of them, his back to the familiar east-setting sun of the Uthman Caliphate. Farther east, he knew, the strange pale sun of the Qersnyk tribes was long fallen, their queer hermaphroditic godling undergoing some mystic transformation to rise again as the face of the night.
Range is told from several different points of view, but operates primarily from the perspective of Temur, grandson of the Great Khan, and Once-Princess turned Wizard, Samarkar. Surviving a bloody war between his cousin and brother, who fought to rule the Khaganate, Temur looks to the sky every night and finds another cousin, uncle, or brother dead, their moon extinguished forever. Formerly the heir to the Rasan Empire, Samarkar has been replaced by her half-brother. Widowed and vulnerable, she renounces her position at court to seek a new power with the Wizards of Tsarepheth. In the midst of their changing world a cult begins to manipulate empires, bringing strife and civil war under every sky the world over.
Outlined as such, it's not a complex plot and the characters are somewhat archetypal, but the motives that move both are anything but. It's those motivations, driven in large part by the veracity of Bear's world building, that makes Range such a compelling read. Compelling, but not necessarily the kind that kept me up into the wee hours of the morning. The pace, and style, make it something to get lost in, to hang on to each detail and relish the creative process that birthed it. That's exactly what I did.
Over the last year I've observed a real trend toward non-western fantasy worlds. From Blackdog (Johansen) and The Emperor Knife (Williams), which share some DNA with Range of Ghosts, to the more Middle Eastern Throne of the Crescent Moon (Ahmed) and the Cyrillic Winds of Khalakovo (Bealieu), there seems to be a concerted effort by authors and editors to expose readers to something new. Some of that is coming from the desire to be different, some is coming from authors of different cultural backgrounds entering the field, and some of it is coming from a desire to mine a new market of readers. Regardless of its intent, fantasy is in the midst of a boom of non-western ideas and cultures. I find it refreshing and even moreso intellectually stimulating. It's an exciting time to be reading and Elizabeth Bear's newest novel is a great example of the times.