Being the wise old man that I am, one of life’s lessons I keep close to hand is: avoid the things that you like the idea of more than you like the actual thing. Humans being humans, for whatever reason there are things we invest a great deal of hope, desire, even material wealth to acquire, only to quickly discard them, or be disappointed due to some misperceived incompatibility with our personalities, interests, or preferences. Our eyes can be bigger than our plates in more ways than just food. Books have great potential in this area. Reviews make them seem interesting, commenters praise their glories, and awards apply a bright, neon-yellow highlight, meaning this wise old man does not always learn from his mistakes. Such is the case with Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts (2012), first in her Eternal Sky trilogy.
Looking back to my notes for Bear’s Undertow, I should not have invested in Range of Ghosts. Flat, flat, flat prose that sucks the life out of what could have been an interesting story, Range of Ghosts indicates nothing has really changed in Bear’s style in the intervening years. Under the microscope, there is nothing overtly wrong with the flow of words. Syntax is correct, the words are descriptive, and the text moves the story forward. And yet I perpetually struggle, paragraph after paragraph, line after line, to maintain focus—even in the so-called dramatic bits. (The exact same thing I experience reading Daniel Abraham.) I must continually rein my wandering mind in. Needless to say, it’s an indication something is wrong.
While reading Range of Ghosts I thought long and hard about this (wandering, wandering…), and came to a few conclusions regarding why the novel is so flat. Firstly, Bear doesn’t effect narrative depth. Everything is on the surface. There are attempts at creating mood—that narrative intangible allowing the story to sink its claws deeper in the mind. There are descriptions of blood and gray skies, for example, and the characters have emotions and emotional moments. But these are never conveyed in a way that builds a deeper understanding or subconscious bond with the story. Adding to this problem is pacing, more specifically the uniformity of pace. The entire narrative is the same steady, medium speed. There is no pick up and slow down, no injections of urgency, no plot pauses to let the reader catch their breath, or walking them up the next hill to let them slide down the other side. And the third issue contributing to the flatness is the lack of amplitude between details and generalities. A similar level of detail is applied to both important and unimportant aspects of the story. With everything accorded the same level of significance, the reader has no spectrum on which to assign value, leaving them indifferent to things in general. By contrast, looking at a similar book, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, one finds appropriate dynamics in prose—rhythm, atmosphere, emphasis on certain details and de-emphasis on others, positive and negative space, etc.. Thus I’ve come to the conclusion that Bear’s prose feels more like a relationship between writer and paper than writer and reader.
Looking at other reviews and commentary on Bear’s work, my opinion is in the minority. This means there are readers who like, even love, her prose. (My guess is that readers put off by Bear’s work have jumped ship long ago, leaving readers who enjoy her work for what it is, and comment, and review, and praise, accordingly.) Thus, I would just say it wasn’t for me, and shift to look at the positive aspects of Range of Ghosts.
In terms of pure imagination, Bear has no shortage. The novel presents a world that feels fresh in the context of other epic fantasies on the market, namely for the ways in which it incorporates ancient Mongolian and Chinese cultures. Range of Ghosts opens at the end of a bloody battle. Part of an ongoing civil war that erupted after the death of the great Khagan, his sons now fight for power. Picking himself from the wreckage is Temur, grandson to the great Khagan, now looking to establish a new life on the grasslands with sheep and horses. However, assassins sent by his uncle to eliminate contenders for the throne would have it otherwise. Samarkar, who was once princess in the nearby Rasan Empire, has given up royal standing to become a wizard, something which she made one of the greatest sacrifices possible to even have a chance at. Her path crossing Temur’s, unbeknownst to both a secret cult lies in the shadows, looking to take power over all empires. (While that end note sounds quite familiar, Bear maintains focus on the characters and their journey, which isn’t bad.)
As is to be expected in the opening volume of an epic fantasy trilogy, a healthy portion of Range of Ghosts is spent building the world, its backstory, and establishing the character relationships that will carry the story forward. Info dumps limited, Bear does a solid job integrating these elements into the present-day story, all the while building story threads for potential future resolution. The worldbuilding is there, but rarely poured upon the reader in gallons, which is a positive.
Readers looking for “diversity” in their narratives should be on Range of Ghosts like white on rice given Bear’s usage of female characters. Beyond token inclusions of ‘empowered’ and ‘independent’ women, Bear should indeed be applauded for the manner in which they are implemented. There is no, “I am woman, hear me roar!” to incite the reactionary side of feminism but which fails to address more relevant topics. Instead, each woman has a natural place in the setting, conforms to her own traits, posseses a spectrum of morality, displays both agency and weakness in diverse ways, and represents—that all important word—gender in organic fashion. “I am woman, hear me speak as an equally proportioned character.” seems more the umbrage. (Intelligent, sophisticated, mature, yes, but you can see why it didn’t catch on as much as roaring…) This is fully worth appreciating given how lopsidedly male the overall epic fantasy scene is, not to mention the penchant for creating empowered female characters which, in fact, are just men with breasts.
In the end, a lot could have been done to fix style and technique in Range of Ghosts (creating better narrative rhythm would eliminate the dross while motivating the story on a line by line basis is one example). As it stands, the flatness killed my ability to sustain engagement with the novel, but for other readers may not be a problem. There remains a great deal of imagination as well as meaningful character interaction relevant to the setting. Take that as my grain of salt. Overall, I’m afraid I need to learn my lesson and just give up on reading Bear.