12. Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear
My first experience with Elizabeth Bear closely echoes the reviews of her books that I've read. I know Adventures in Reading is a big fan, and I figured the first book in a new series would be a good way to get introduced to her writing.
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 intend 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 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”). She expects her readers to keep up with a plethora of unfamiliar terms, references, and names, 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. The pitting of a multicultural trade-based empire against an extremist fringe group also reminds me of current events in our reality.
All in all, I am impressed with Bear's use of language, undoubtedly the best feature of this book at least, and I respect her choice to throw readers into a world and let them roll with the foreign names and terms. It demonstrates confidence in her readers' intelligence and doesn't subscribe to the belief that entertainment reading needs to be simplistic to get people to read. While I felt like her characters were well-rounded and likable, there was nothing especially original about them and the plot is typical for a fantasy novel. This is very much a genre piece, written with higher than usual standards.