the Little Red Reviewer

Range of Ghosts, by Elizabeth Bear

Posted on: April 9, 2012

Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Published in 2012

where I got it: Library

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Would you just look at that cover art? I would have a poster of that artwork on my bedroom wall in a heartbeat.

Strong female characters who kick ass without having to give up an ounce of their femininity? check. Creepy bad guy? check. A protagonist you actually want to root for? check. Worldbuilding that goes the extra mile? check. Mythologies that come alive on the page? double check.  Everyone is going apeshit over this book, and for good reasons.  If anything I mentioned earlier in this paragraph got your attention, Range of Ghosts is probably a book for you.

Our story starts on a battlefield within the Khaganate lands, where Prince Temur has been left for dead. Under The Eternal Sky, a tiny moon shines for every heir. Once, there were over a hundred. But the great Khagan died, and his heirs fight for his throne, shattering alliances and slaughtering brothers, sons, friends. As Temur looks to the Eternal sky, fewer and fewer moons remain. His brother’s moon has gone dim, but his uncle’s still shines bright.

After leaving the carnage of the battlefield, Temur heads for the safety of the mountains, and meets up with the refugee clans of his people. Many of the families lost all their young men in the battles, so a young man of marriageable age is far more valuable to them than a prince. Happy to live out his life as a simple man, Temur wisely keeps his mouth shut regarding his lineage, and is soon unofficially betrothed to Edene, the great granddaughter of a clan matriarch.  When Edene is stolen away by the ghosts of the battlefield slain, Temur vows to rescue her.

As the Khaganate falls under the weight of too many heirs, far to the West someone is breeding filth. Through the dark arts of a glass book, the Al-Sepehr has learned the magics of binding the dead to his will. The more deaths in the Khaganate lands, the larger of an army of dead he will have under his power. All that is left is to sew more and more discontent and anger among the few remaining heirs to the Khaganate.  Why fight a war of territory with your barbaric neighbors when you can make them kill themselves for you?

Meanwhile, in the high mountains of Tsarepheth,  once-Princess Samarkar has given up her royal position for wizardly magic. A small amount has manifested within her, but will it be enough?  With multiple wives and children, and a dowager empress, not even her family can escape the complications of succession.

it’s not difficult to guess that these three story lines will come together in fireworks. And they do.  The first in a series, Range of Ghosts is more about set up, world building, and characterization.  I adore deep characterization and world building, so I didn’t mind the slowly building plot or the lack of conclusion at the end.  For those of you who abhore cliffhangers, don’t worry, I’m pretty sure the next book is in the works.

And oh, the worldbuiling!  in Bear’s secondary world that reflects and yet doesn’t the geography and time frame of Genghis Khan’s rule over Central Asia, along with not-quite Persian and not-quite Chinese counterparts, she has created religions that bleed into physical manifestations, magical systems that require blunt sacrifice from its students, and cultural mythologies that shine unto themselves.  Temur and Samarkar cross paths and join up pretty early, and when they share the myths of their people, it’s pretty funny (and telling) that the villains of one person’s story is a real person who didn’t do anything wrong in the history of the other person’s culture.  And get this: depending on where you are on the map, the freakin’ sky changes.  The sun sets in a different place, the shape and quantity and paths of moons change. How cool is that?  I’ve never come across anything like that, and it really was quite brilliantly original.

Range of Ghosts is going to be on a lot of “best of the year” lists.  But not mine.

The designs of the cultures and the world building in Range of Ghosts was wonderful. I liked the characters, and loved the fantasy twist on an almost historical fantasy. But you see, it was the writing style of Range of Ghosts that did nothing for me. it was the sentences themselves, the words they were made of, the foundation of the thing itself that left me wanting.  Range of Ghosts simply did not sing to me.  It did not woo me, as it sat on the table across the room.  Too many descriptions and sentences struck me as unfinished and clunky, even awkward at times. I found myself stumbling and tripping over and through passages and paragraphs. It was a huge distraction of my enjoyment of the story.  I don’t know if this is a case where Bear wasn’t at the top of her game or if I was looking for poetry within the prose was that never designed to be there in the first place.

I desperately wanted to like this book. There are two scenes, involving Temur having visions of the goddess of Mother Night that were so stunning that I read them twice. With all the potential within those characters, all the world building, why couldn’t the rest of the book been that perfect, that polished, that alluring? I desperately wanted to like Range of Ghosts, and even with all its potential it just wasn’t going to happen for me.

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19 Responses to "Range of Ghosts, by Elizabeth Bear"

Wow, if there’s one thing that I appreciate it’s an honest review and I always get that here! Frankly, we’re not all the same and that’s a good thing but sometimes you find somebody whose opinion you trust. I was reading this at first and thinking it sounded pretty amazing and then I got to the sentence where you said the writing style did nothing for you! At first I had to go back and take a second look, it was a real double take kind of moment. It may be that I pick this book up. Being a bit of a book tart the cover would probably be enough to lure me in, however, the one thing I’m a real sucker for is beautiful writing – you could probably say everybody is right! But it’s not always the case. If I find a writer with a great writing style I can read their books even if there isn’t a great deal going on – just because I appreciate the writing. On the other hand if I find a great story that’s poorly put across it will just irritate the hell out of me!! Perhaps I’ll wait until it’s in the library and then give it a go. Nothing ventured, etc, etc. The good thing these days is if I’m not enjoying something at least I no longer torture myself by reading it all!
Thanks for that.
Lynn :D

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there were so many things to like about this book, that it nearly killed me to diss on it.

I completely agree with you, beautiful writing makes up for anything, but odd writing makes everything just irritating.

There’s a very in depth review of Range of Ghosts over at Tor, it’s a glowing review, and I can’t argue with a thing in it:

http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/03/balancing-act-range-of-ghosts-by-elizabeth-bear

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Interesting review! I have only read one book by Elizabeth Bear: By the Mountain Bound. I found it somewhat similar to how you found this, though. I remember there were characters that I wanted to like, and bits of the world that were intriguing, but ultimately I found the writing surprisingly bloated for its short length and the whole thing lacking in satisfaction and coherence.

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i just read your review of By the Mountain Bound, lol! short and snarky, I love it!

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Huh, I completely disagree. I’ve had that problem before though where an author’s style just doesn’t work for me.

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Justin, it was your review on Staffer’s Musings that got me to read this book in the first place, so go you!

and just like with the Tor review, I can’t disagree with anything in your review. Except for the sex scene. that scene was just plain awkward for me, and trust me, I LOVE a good sex scene. makes me want to write an entire blog posts just about sex scenes, how just like having sex, we all want something different and sometimes we don’t know what we like until we experience it.

Everyone, go read Justin’s review:

http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/03/balancing-act-range-of-ghosts-by-elizabeth-bear

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You mean comparing sex to riding a horse doesn’t do it for you? Well my entire concept of women is blown.

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Like lynnsbooks, I thought this was going to be one of your all-time-great books, then I got to paragraph 9 and it brought me to a full stop (I think there might be a pun there, nut I’m not sure). Awkward writing makes any books a chore, while lyrical writing can overcome many, if not all, faults. Too bad, because like you wanting to like this book, I wanted you to like it, so I would want to read it.

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go read those reviews I linked to, and trust me, after reading those you will want to read it.

and maybe it was just me finding the prose style clunky. I am a hella bad snob when it comes to that kind of thing.

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I’ve never read this novel, but I often feel entirely the same way – no matter the number of wonderful concepts, engaging characters, writing can still be a make-or-break factor. It’s like Rothfuss: without that incredible prose, The Name of the Wind would be a mediocre tale at best! Still, I think I’ll give this one a go – the factors you listed to start with sound enjoyable (okay, I admit it – I love worldbuilding far too much! :P ). *Goes off to library website* Seriously, the library reservation system has saved my bookcases from implosion many a time…

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don’t you just love library websites, and the “add hold” button? I put stuff on hold all week while my friend’s blogs (that would be YOU) are adding things to my reading list, and then on Saturday I go pick up the stack of goodies at the library.

This is one you should read, I think you would go nuts for the worldbuilding.

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Absolutely! That button is my saviour. ;) I do a similar thing – and likewise, most of my reading list gets added to from blogs (that’s you, too!). The local library here is only open over lunchtime on Saturday here, though, so I normally pick up the stack on weekdays.

Well, I’ve reserved it now – let’s hope it comes soon…

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I’ve had a similar reaction to some of Bear’s books (most notably her first two Promethean novels and ALL THE WINDWRACKED STARS). I recognize that they’re good–that they’re the sort of things that can change someone’s whole world–but something about the writing keeps me from feeling it myself.

That said, I’ve also read Bear novels (and stories) that completely transformed me. NEW AMSTERDAM and its sequels blew my mind, as did CARNIVAL. DUST, HAMMERED and SCARDOWN also rocked my world. I found them pitch perfect in every respect: great characters, great worldbuilding, great writing.

I think Bear is one of those authors who’s decidedly hit or miss, at least from where I stand. Sometimes I can find the poetry in her words. Sometimes it eludes me. It could be worth reading another of her books to see if you’re the same way.

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I’ve heard such good things about DUST that that will probably be the next one I try.

“decidedly hit or miss” – perfect way to describe it!

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Dang. Your review had a twist! All that build up and then BOOM. Yours may be the first unfavorable review of the book that I’ve read. I’ll keep it in mind, if I ever pick it up and read it.

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yeah, I’m a total jerk like that. the entire interweb is going apeshit for this book, and good for them. feels weird being one of the few people who doesn’t think it’s the second coming. weirdest thing is that i read the glowing reviews, and agree with 99% of what’s in them. I’m never going to be able to look Elizabeth Bear in the face again.

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I’m still thinking about this. why didn’t I like this book? there is this wonderful scene at the end, and i won’t spoil it, but a minor character suddenly becomes a rather major character, and I suspect she will be very, very important in the next books in this series. Well, she’s quite young, and does something far beyond her years. it’s a powerful scene, and she’s a powerful character, even though we don’t get to know her very well in this book.

and here’s the thing: I was so frustrated by other elements of the book that by the time I got to “her scene”, I just didn’t care. how awful is that? I wish that scene had come much earlier in the book, because it would have completely changed how I felt about it.

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