Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear is one of those writers who I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. Her body of work is universally well regarded, and many reviewers whose opinion I trust have raved about Range of Ghosts. I’ve recently made a commitment to gender parity in the reviews on the site, and Range of Ghosts was the first title that immediately came to mind. It’s really a shame that I waited this long. Bear turns in a unique and exquisitely layered tale that avoids almost every trope in the epic fantasy handbook without ever risking alienating the entrenched fans of the genre. Bear has vaulted easily onto my list of must read authors with this opening volume of her first foray into epic fantasy.

There is a lot going on in Range of Ghosts, which is set in a world very similar to Asia after the fall of Genghis Khan. Every character in the novel is a person of color, which is a nice change of pace from the Eurocentric norm of the genre. There is a smorgasbord of different cultures in play and the cast hails from or has ties to most of them. Chief among these are Temur, the grandson of the Great Khagan whose descendants are now at war to determine who will rule the sprawling steppes, and Once-Princess Samarkar of the Rasa dynasty, who has given her up ability to bear children along with her claim on the throne, to become a wizard. Both of these characters have ties to powerful dynasties and yet have turned their back on their former lives, only to find themselves drawn into a conflict with much greater scope and consequences.

The supporting cast isn’t given short shrift at all, with every character given realistic motivations and reactions that feel completely natural rather than just a means to drive the principle protagonists or plot forward. Payma, Samarkar’s sister in law who even though on the run from the new Emperor who would kill both her and her unborn child to remove a possible claimant to the throne of Rasa, isn’t simply a woman to be rescued. She contributes to the travelling band and is a welcome member of the company instead of a burden to carry. Temur’s love interest Edene, is also a stand out, who doesn’t wait for rescue when captured and imprisoned. Instead, she makes a plan to escape and executes with cunning and bravery.

Much to my surprise, Bear manages to make these larger issues of a brewing war and the machinations of the cult of the Scholar God, who plan to rest control of the region once the more powerful factions have weakened themselves through fighting one another, secondary to the personal journeys and challenges of her cast of characters. There are plenty of smaller, more personal conflicts, in the narrative and Bear wisely focuses on these more than the larger issues at hand. This is a story about men and women first, empires and dynasties second. It’s her deft touch with the smaller moments, the ones that define and characterize far more than any battles won or lost that make the characters shine. These are real people, not pieces on some authorial chess board.

Every character has agency, and for a novel with a largely female cast, this is sadly extraordinary. We have princesses and damsels in distress sure, but they don’t wait for heroes to save them. They confront their problems head on with blade and spell, cunning and guile. Readers will come to love them, to be invested in their struggles and triumphs both small and large.

As a reader, I’m always more interested in character than world building, but I would be remiss if I failed to mention the intricacy and sheer volume of Bear’s efforts on this front. Range of Ghosts doesn’t rely on the Eurocentric short hand that so many of the big names in the genre have at their disposal. The sheer number of cultures, religions, and magical systems in play are astounding and Bear handles them some effortlessly that readers will hardly realize just how much information is packed onto the page. There is no overwrought exposition here, with relevant information presented seamlessly in the narrative. This isn’t your father’s epic fantasy, to be sure. But it is everything the genre should aspire to be, an exploration of new worlds, new cultures, new people, all while following the adventures of real people caught up in the roiling politics of the world around them.

If you haven’t explored Elizabeth Bear’s work before, do yourself a favor and don’t wait another minute. The Range of Ghosts is everything you already love about epic fantasy, just seen from a fresh perspective with characters that are a breath of fresh air besides.

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