This week I’m recommending the first part of a Fantasy trilogy inspired by the diverse cultures and turbulent history of the Silk Road countries of Central Asia. Some years ago I visited Turkmenistan and as I stood in the ruins of an ancient city destroyed by the Mongols and saw the remains of a pyramid built of human skulls, I thought, `Someone should write a Fantasy novel about this.’ Now they have. `Range of Ghosts’ by American author Elizabeth Bear was published in 2012. The story is continued in `Shattered Pillars’ (2013) and completed in `Steles of the Sky’ (2014). These three novels (the titles all refer to mountain ranges) are collectively known as `The Eternal Sky’. ‘Range of Ghosts’ is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook but after reading it on my Kindle, I ordered the whole trilogy in hardback because I knew that these were books I would always want on my shelves.
The story opens in the aftermath of a terrible battle between rival claimants to become Khagan of the empire conquered by the Qersnyk nomads. A young warrior called Temur has been wounded in the throat and left for dead. As he struggles to survive on the snowy steppe, Temur learns that most of his kinsman have died and that his treacherous uncle, Qori Buqa, has been victorious. Temur’s luck changes when he finds a friendly warhorse whom he names Bansh (dumpling). Riding Bansh he joins up with other refugees including the Tsareg clan. Temur soon becomes the lover of Edene, the clan leader’s grand-daughter, but Qori Buqa has supernatural help to track down and eliminate his nephew. The Tsareg survive an attack by an army of blood-ghosts but the pregnant Edene is carried off. Temur vows to get her back but becomes dangerously ill as he and Bansh cross the haunted mountains known as the Range of Ghosts.
Temur is found and nursed back to health by two female wizards from the Rasan Empire, Tsering-la and Once Princess Samarkar, who have been sent to investigate the fate of the deserted city of Qeshqer. In the mountains, they encounter Hrahima who is a Cho-tse, a tiger who walks upright and speaks like a human. She brings a warning from Temur’s grandfather that the leader of the assassin cult known as the Nameless is stirring up wars and using evil magics not seen since the time of the legendary Carrion-King. When they all travel to Rasa, Samarkar finds the royal family in a state of crisis after a murder. She helps one of her sisters-in-law to escape from the Black Palace and throws in her lot with Temur and Hrahima. They are joined on their quest to reach the hidden citadel of the Nameless and rescue Edene, by a warrior monk who has taken a vow of silence. A long and dangerous journey begins…
`Range of Ghosts’, and the `Eternal Sky’ Trilogy in general, has what I would call a `wandering around the map’ plot until the whole cast is finally in the same place for the big battle. Some of this wandering seemed a bit under-motivated but I never minded because the characters visit such colourful and fascinating places along Bear’s Celadon Highway. In her world, each cultural area has a unique sky and set of heavenly bodies – `Different sky, different gods.’ This is a novel in which thrilling action scenes (magical attacks, assassination attempts, court intrigues and daring escapes) alternate with long descriptive passages. When is an `information dump’ not an information dump? When it is so full of captivating detail (such as Rasan people sticking their tongues out as a mark of respect or the 64 sacred colours of the wonderful steppe horses) that you want to learn even more about the places and customs being described.
The majority of Fantasy novels used to be set in versions of medieval Europe. Now writers plunder cultures from all over the world for story ideas. This only works if the writer does plenty of research and is truly inspired by what they discover. That certainly seems to be the case with Bear who has used the `Secret History of the Mongols’ and legends and beliefs from places such as Tibet, North-West China, and the salt-deserts, `Heavenly Mountains’ and Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan to create a dazzling alternative version of Central Asia. Some things in the novel that you’d think she’d made up have a basis in fact, such as the notion that removing the head of an ancient conquerer from his tomb could cause a major war. Well, the head of Tamerlane (Timur the Lame) was removed from his tomb in Samarkand in 1941. Hitler invaded the Soviet empire the next day. I’ve been into Tamerlane’s tomb myself but I promise I trod very quietly so as not to disturb his blood-thirsty ghost.
`Range of Ghosts’ has a larger cast of characters than I’ve been able to mention in my brief summary, all of them with interesting story arcs of their own. The plot includes Fantasy favourites such as the `return of the necromancer’, the `wandering heir to the throne’ and the `making of a wizard’ but they are all given a new gloss by the Central Asian setting. The ruthless leader of the Nameless, al-Sepehr (so not very nameless then) may be a standard Fantasy villain but he is a particularly scary one. The ancient magic of Erem which al-Sepehr uses to communicate with his agents and control a djinn is impressively evil. Even reading the script in which its spells are written causes people to go blind. The sorcerer known as the Carrion King and his opponent the great Mother Dragon are haunting presences in the novel. Young Temur has never wanted to be Khagan but he sees his only alternatives as being carrion or being a king and both seem monstrous. Whether Temur can find a third way, is a question that hangs over the trilogy. As Qersnyk/Mongol warriors go, Temur is rather a gentle soul who manages to find room in his heart for three very different females – brave Edene, the wizard Samarkar, and his miraculous mare Bansh.
Strong female characters used to be a rarity in Heroic Fantasy but this book is full of them. Qersnyk women are shown as equals of the men. They are free to ride, hunt, fight, rule clans and take the sexual initiative. So when Edene is kidnapped and imprisoned in the citadel of the Nameless she doesn’t just sit around waiting to be rescued. After she is tricked into stealing a magical ring, Edene spends much of the trilogy fighting its corrupting influence. Samarkar is a clever and stong-willed princess who, after enduring a loveless royal marriage, decides to become a `Wizard of Tsarepheth’ even though this means sacrificing the power to create with her body for the chance of power to create with her mind. Compassionate Tsering-la failed to gain any magical powers after surviving the dangerous `neutering’ operation but she gradually discovers an important role for herself. Samarkar endures the ordeals and grows in status as a wizard throughout the story. She also becomes part of a love-triangle which doesn’t develop in the way that Western readers might expect. Tigress Hrahima is a formidable fighter but due to a tragedy in her past she is grappling with the moral problem of why bad things happen to good tigers. If the company of these four splendid heroines isn’t enough for you, as the trilogy continues you will also get to know a wicked empress who has a change of heart, two veiled Uthman women with secret agendas who must contend with many restrictions placed on their freedom, and the woman-king of the Lizard people. I hope you’ll enjoy following all of them along the Celadon Highway. Until two weeks time…