Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear
Back cover blurb:
Temur is walking from a battlefield where he was left for dead. Temur is now the legitimate heir by blood to his grandfather’s Khaganate, but he is not the strongest. Going into exile is the only way to survive his ruthless cousin.
Once-Princess Samarkar is climbing the thousand steps of the Citadel of the Wizards of Tsarepheth. She was heir to the Rasan Empire until her father got a son on a new wife. She has renounced her worldly power to seek the magical power of a wizard.
These two will come together to stand against the hidden cult that has so carefully brought all the empires of the Celadon Highway to war through deceit and sorcerous power.
It took me a couple of chapters to get into this book. But after the first appearance of Samarkar, I was hooked. Over the course of the book I came to be equally invested in all the main characters, but she was the one that first grabbed me. Let me just describe her badass-ness for a quick second: heir to an empire until her younger half-brother is born and she gets married off; unhappy in her new home, she gets her brother to come kill her husband; widowed, she decides to give up her Princess status and study wizardry, is neutered in order to gain magical power though with no guarantee of success or even her survival (how the magic system works for them). And that’s all before the story starts.
Overall, my favourite things about this book were the characters (particularly the female characters) and the worldbuilding. The characters in this book prove, as if it needed proving, that you can have well-rounded casts of characters (though they are skewed towards the elite of their various cultures) in epic fantasy. Everyone is a real person, and everyone’s strengths are acknowledged, whether it’s standing on a saddle in the middle of battle to shoot arrows with deadly accuracy, or just grimly gritting your teeth and not complaining about the blisters on your feet, or your own discomfort on a long journey.
I found the worldbuilding fascinating. From an external-to-the-book perspective, it’s important in that there’s a ton of discussion about non-Western fantasy settings going around in the SFF community, but I’m more interested in an internal-to-the-book perspective. There are several different cultures interacting in this book – in fact, with only one exception I can think of, I think every main character spends a large portion of the narrative outside of their culture of origin. Each character has times when they feel more or less comfortable–the steppe-raised man is claustrophobic and nervous among the mountains and in cities/palaces; the mountain-fastness-raised woman is agoraphobic in the open steppe. There’s a lot of worldbuilding done in this book simply through what is and isn’t familiar to each character in terms of ways of living that we might take for granted (do we sleep on a soft or hard bed? Raised or floor level? With or without a pillow? etc.). That was really interesting to me; how the the world was painted through details of character interaction both with each other and with their environment.
Maybe that is an obvious point, and it’s only my own little minor revelation as to the ways it was accomplished that makes me think it’s worth pointing out. But either way, the worldbuilding in this book is excellent.
The only problem I had with this book is that I got lost a time or two. I mean, physically lost in the world. Range of Ghosts is very much an epic fantasy; there’s a lot of walking to Mordor, so to speak. At one point, I’m pretty sure in my head the characters were crossing an entirely different mountain range than the one they actually were crossing, so when they came out the other side I was so confused. And this despite referring several times to the helpful map in the front of the book (I normally don’t bother to reference the maps in books). In the book’s defence, I believe this is entirely due to my own geography fail, and no lack in the book itself…
I definitely recommend this to fantasy fans. I had heard a lot of good things about this book before I read it, and it lived up to them all.