Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear. ★★★★
Range of Ghosts is the first entry into an epic fantasy series with a setting based around central Asia.
Temur is the grandson of the Great Khan, who’s empire is being torn asunder in a civil war. As a potential heir, Temur’s sought by assassins sent by his uncle. Samarkar was once a princess of the Rasan Empire, before she gave up her position to become a wizard of the Citadel. When a secret cult sets out to topple empires, it is Temur and Samarkar who are caught in the middle.
The greatest strength of Range of Ghosts is its superb world building. Bear writes of the lands around the Celadon Highway, the in world equivalent of the Silk Road. The setting she creates is a refreshing change of pace from the countless “medieval Europe” stories. Not only that, but Bear embeds her setting with a sense of magic. This is a world where the skies change with the fate of empires, where the ghosts of the dead really do howl across the steppes, and where wizards give up their potential to create new life for magical powers. The imaginative setting of Range of Ghosts constantly imparts wonder. Additionally, the characters Bear crafts feel true to their environment. Temur belongs to the steppes under the Eternal Sky, while Samarkar belongs to the cliffs and valleys of the Shattered Pillars.
I loved that there were multiple capable female characters who do things! And who are even friends with each other! Both Samarkar and Temur meet courageous women, and I would get unduly excited by the many scenes with three or more female characters.
It’s a minor thing, but Bear also writes horses very well. Too many fantasy authors fall into the trap which Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasyland describes as treating horses just like bicycles. Banshe, Temur’s mare, is a significant presence and treated like a living animal.
Range of Ghosts does have problems with plot and pacing. There’s just no urgency. So much of the book is travel that it can feel like you’re moving from one event to the next. It doesn’t tie together well to create that thrill that makes you unable to put the book down. Maybe this is a symptom of being the first book in the series? It’s possible that it suffers from having to set things up for books farther down the road.
I’d recommend Range of Ghosts for people looking for an epic fantasy book with an unique and vivid world, diverse characters, and well written female characters.