With George R.R. Martin dominating the New York Times bestseller list, Hugo-award winning author Elizabeth Bear is offering an antidote to the moral ambiguity and brutality of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. A Range Of Ghosts, the first book in Bear’s The Eternal Sky trilogy, offers no surprises. Its heroes are noble and kind, and their enemies are despicable villains. But that doesn’t mean Bear—the Hugo-winning author of “Tideline” and “Shoggoths In Bloom”—is producing simplistic work; she’s created a rich world based on the history and mythology of Central Asia. After the death of the Great Khagan, the Mongol-like Qersnyk tribes are ripping their empire apart in a bloody war of succession. A princess who gave up her title to become a wizard, a grandson of the Khagan, and an exiled tiger-woman join together to stop the machinations of the necromancer and murder-cultist al-Sepehr, who is encouraging the carnage in hopes that his nation will come out on top of the new world order.
Bear’s main characters are distinct and well-written. The wizard Samarkar particularly shines. She battles fear of her ruthless brother and the limitations of her own power, but her vulnerability doesn’t stop her from serving as a leader in social situations and battle. Bear also writes some sections from al-Sepehr’s point of view, and his machinations offer some of the book’s cleverest moments.
There’s no apocalyptic threat presented in Range Of Ghosts, just the fear that the world will be diminished by the end of a prosperous peace. The book offers a strong sense of history, referencing empires that have risen, declined and disappeared. The shift of human powers affects the sky itself, which hosts different suns and moons depending on what nation it hangs over. The slow attrition of the many Qersnyk moons provides a poignant symbol of the decline of greatness.
In the style of The Fellowship Of The Ring, A Range Of Ghosts is entirely devoted to introducing the world and getting the adventuring party together. As a result, Bear is able to offer plenty of background without a high page count. Her world is filled with wonders, and the awe the characters experience while traveling through it helps add impact to their encounters with magnificent wizard-built bridges and birds large enough to snatch up elephants.
The format is also frustrating because, while Range Of Ghosts offers plenty of dramatic sword-and-sorcery-packed fight scenes, the book has no real climax. But Bear is a veteran trilogy writer, so there’s every reason to believe she’ll deliver in the books that follow.