2012’s Range of Ghosts is the first novel in Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky series, which currently includes three linked novels and five shorter works. Or so I see on consulting the ISFBD, because if the hardcover I read has any hint that this is part of a series, I overlooked it. I will return to this point later.
Life as a relative of the Great Khan isn’t all beer and skittles and sacking the defenseless cities of the great plains. Sometimes it involves massive civil wars. The death of a Khan usually triggers a squabble over the Khanate. Which of the rivals, Qulan or Qori Buqa, will gain power? Or will the war end with the Khaganate in ruins? Choosing which faction to join is a matter of life and death and neutrality is not an option.
Temur chose poorly, which is why when we meet him he is the lone survivor of a slain army. He has been left for dead amidst the heaped bodies of his close relatives.
Temur, a grandson of the late Great Khan, is arguably the rightful heir. It’s just that he cannot muster the force needed to claim his throne. Rather than face certain death at the hands of the pretender’s army, he chooses exile.
The previous Khaganate at least kept the peace, if only to better extract wealth from the inhabitants of the plains. The descent into civil war means that peace is a thing of the past. So too are proper funerary rites. That means that there are legions of the restless dead adding to the normal (and considerable) hazards of the plains.
Temur joins one of the many refugee bands wandering the plains. He finds that safety in numbers is only an illusion, after an army of angry ghosts descends on the refugees. Temur survives, but he is unable to keep the ghosts from carrying off Edene, the woman with whom he has fallen in love. Having failed Edene once, Temur resolves to track her kidnappers to their lair and retrieve her. His whole world is in ruins, but this one person will be saved!
The ghosts are motivated by more than random malevolence. They have fallen under the control of a power-hungry sorcerer, who now holds Edene captive. The sorcerer has intervened in the politics of the plains: the would-be rulers of the Khaganate are mere pawns in a sorcerer’s game. If Temur is to find and rescue Edene, he will have to ally himself with Samarkar, once a princess and now one of the mages of the Citadel of the Wizards of Tsarepheth.
Let me start off by complaining about Tor’s marketing choices on this novel. I will grant that it’s probably a safe assumption that any given fantasy novel is in fact part of a greater series. That said, it is nice to know where in a series a particular book is located. But when I picked up the hardcover I read, I saw no indication that this is the first book in a series. I checked out the cover art of the second book, on Amazon, and again failed to find any hint that the novel was part of a series. I cannot fathom why Tor thinks this is a sensible thing to do and it is by no means the first time I have encountered this curious policy on Tor’s part.
What particularly distinguishes this from other fantasy castle operas is the setting. Bear, whose avidly discussed advice on how to write the Other made much of 2009 so memorable, borrows here from the history of Central Asia 1, that vast and interesting land from which hordes of nomadic invaders have regularly emerged to harass or subject their settled neighbours. (Any sensible sedentary person might have started to wonder if the domestication of the horse was really a good idea.) While Temur might see his people’s way of life as natural and good, the neighbouring peoples, from empires to hidden enclaves of conniving wizards, don’t and the book acknowledges this. That is why this is much more than the familiar story of the exiled heir.
Of the two leads, I found Samarkar more interesting; exiled heirs of vast empires searching for loved ones who were carried off by an army of the angry dead to a conniving wizard’s stronghold are a dime a dozen in fantasy. Samarkar’s efforts to find a rewarding niche for herself in a world that sees women mainly as commodities and broodmares is much less business as usual.
Tor left another bit of useful information off the cover: this novel is not a standalone. It ends with “to be continued in The Shattered Pillars ”. This book introduces the setting, the characters, and the various factions 2. It does not in any way provide a complete story. Well, that’s the fashion these days.
Range of Ghosts is available from Tor. If you pick it up, you will also want to track down the SECOND BOOK IN THE ETERNAL SKY SERIES 3, Shattered Pillars, and the THIRD BOOK IN THE ETERNAL SKY SERIES, Steles of the Sky, also available from Tor.
1: I have an irrational antipathy for continental interiors; for no defensible reason, series without large bodies of water, even if they are just puny rivers, are less attractive to me than stories with rivers, lakes, seas, or oceans. It’s a stupid preference, but it’s mine.
I also prefer icy worlds like the moons of Jupiter or Titan to comparatively waterless worlds like Mars or Venus.
2: Although I spent a fair chunk of the book thinking I had mistakenly begun with book two, who everyone is and what they are fighting over is eventually explained.
3: Dear Tor’s marketing department, don’t say I am not willing to do your job for you.