BOOK REVIEW – Elizabeth Bear: In an alien world, creating deeply human characters in “Range of Ghosts”


May 1, 2012
Miriam Laufer
Book Critic
Book Review

What does a wizard, a group of people who treat horses like family, a giant bird, and a ring with powers to make a person invisible have in common?  They are all in the novel Range of Ghosts. The world of Elizabeth Bear’s new Eternal Sky series is not Middle Earth, but is equally vivid, self-contained, and epic. Range of Ghosts is the first novel in the sequence, although two related novellas Bone and Jewel Creatures and Book of Iron have been published, and a sequel, Shattered Pillars, is slated to come out next year.

Bear — the Hugo Award winner for Best Short Story in 2008 and Best Novelette in 2009 and 2005 John W. Campbell Award winner for Best New Writer — is the author of several science fiction and fantasy series, notably the Promethean Age novels set in an alternate Britain and the Edda of Burdens trilogy. Similar to the way she reworks Norse mythology in Edda of Burdens, Bear reinvents the Mongols of Central Asia as the Qersnyk plainsmen in Eternal Sky.

Temur is a grandson of the Great Khagan, who conquered the diverse lands of the Khaganate and consolidated his victories through intermarriage. Arising from the carnage of a battle between the armies of his uncle and brother, Temur intends to escape to the east. Instead, he becomes entangled in a quest that will lead him to claim his birthright as Khanzadeh (prince).  His companions are the wizard and once-Princess Samarkar of the Rasan Empire, the Cho-tse or tiger woman Hrahima, a mysterious exile from her own people, Brother Hsiung, a mute monk, and a horse named Bansh. His enemies are a religious cult, who control the bird and the ring, and intend to use them to resurrect their dead leader, al-Rachīd ibn Sepehr, known also as the Sorcerer-Prince or Carrion-King.

Temur’s world is harsh and pungent, and Bear particularly excels in describing its material details. Her language, a celebrated feature in all of her writing, shines here in her descriptions of the setting (“Ragged vultures spiraled up a cherry sky.”) and the cadence of the characters’ thoughts (“Samarkar would live. And she would grow to become something new.”). Like George R.R. Martin, Bear presents third person limited viewpoints from multiple characters, a strategy that allows her to delve deep into their heads without losing her own distinctive poetic narrative voice. In typical Bear fashion, she expects her readers to keep up with a plethora of unfamiliar terms, references, and names, this time flavored with the tongues of Central Asia. Her most successful creation is the horse-entwined culture of the Qersnyks, around whom she builds an equine-centric vocabulary:  humphed, whuffed, and snorted are phrases used to describe men as well as mares. Though her phrases can fall prey to a disorienting synesthesia (“a red as wet as blood”), overall Bear’s imaginative lexicon plays like music to a reader’s ears.

The importance of transnational cooperation is a strong theme in a book that appears to have endless cultural variations. The choice of the Mongol culture as a model has interesting implications for the best ways to address differences between peoples. The Mongols’ solution, and thus, the Qersnyk solution, is trade and intermarriage. When she sees Temur’s dark skin, Samarkar remembers, “The plainsmen had such a reputation for intermarrying.”  The pitfalls of that method for women are addressed in Samarkar’s own story, featuring an unsuccessful marriage alliance. Still, one is meant to sympathize when Temur reflects, “his people conquered for riches and knowledge, not to evangelize.”

The idea that the lands can be one nation while maintaining multiple ethnicities is repeated as an ideal throughout the book. In pitting a multicultural trade-based empire against an extremist fringe group, Bear manages again to provide not only a deeply human, but also familiar tale in the midst of a seemingly alien world.






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