WoGF Book Review: Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

This is my second book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.  I’m back on schedule—just barely!

Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth BearRange of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear is the story of an empire falling apart.  The Old Khagan is dead, and his nephew Temur is left for dead on the battlefield.  However, in a land where each of the Khagan’s living heirs has his own moon in the sky, his survival is no secret, and his uncle is determined to hunt him down.  His first instinct is merely to get away, but when an enemy sends the ghosts of his people to capture his bed-mate, he sets out on a quest to reclaim her.  Along the way, he joins with the wizard and once-princess Samarkar to stand against a hidden cult that seeks to play Temur and his uncle against each other and conquer their people.

The language in this book was beautiful.  Not overly showy, but fluid and graceful, effortlessly leading me through the story.  The love scene early on is one of the most poetic I’ve ever read.

Lots of great female characters: wizards, warriors, horsewomen, grandmothers, princesses, an even a female king.  And horses; Temur’s mare Bansh truly was a character in her own right.  I always love seeing a range of strengths.  Looking back on it now, this book was actually very heavily populated with women.  Given that a lot of the men all killed each other off before the story started, that makes a lot of sense.

My favorite part was the magnificent world building.  The feel of the silk-road fantasy world was very solidly Not European, from the Rasan custom of sticking out your tongue to show respect to the life of the steppe clans, with their horses and white-houses and true names.  The sky changes to reflect the god of whomever holds power in the land, and the gods seem very close.

It was incredibly refreshing to get away from the familiar old tropes, but in some ways it also placed an extra layer of distance between me and the characters. It felt more like watching a grand adventure unfold than being plunged into the midst of one myself.  I enjoyed the story, but I wasn’t emotionally invested.  I wasn’t compelled to keep reading.  I feel bad about saying that, because it really is a great book, and I’m planning to read the sequel when it comes out.  I think it probably says more about me as a reader; the emotion is all very subtly drawn, dipping very shallowly into the characters and letting their feelings come across mainly through their actions and the choice of description.  Quite different from a lot of my other reading fare, and requiring more concentration on my part.

I went into this book thinking it would probably end up on my Hugo nomination ballot.  I’m not sure it makes it into my top five, but Range of Ghosts is definitely in contention.

WoGF Book Review: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

A few weeks ago, I posted about the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge over at Worlds Without End.  As predicted, writing the review is the hard part.  So, more than three weeks after finishing the book, here’s my first: a review of Graceling by Kristin Cashore.

I’ve been hearing good things about Graceling for years, but the description always put me off.  A book about a smart, beautiful teenage girl with a magical talent for killing?  Right.  Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve read perhaps too many urban fantasies in the last few years about hot young women who are deadly with their weapons of choice, and I just wasn’t in the mood for another one, even if it was set in a fairy-tale kingdom.

Turns out I was wrong.  When I finally picked it up from my local library, Graceling upended all my expectations.  Katsa kills, yes, and she’s magically good at it, but that’s not what the book is about.  It’s about Katsa herself, and what it means for her to be forced to act as a thug and a killer when all she wants is to be a good person.

The book opens with Katsa in the midst of a secret rescue.  Secret, not because the kidnappers might manage to stop her, but because she can’t let her uncle, the king, find out.  I love that she doesn’t even know the victim, and she’s saving him just because it’s the right thing to do.  And contrary to my fears, she’s very careful not to kill anybody, not even the one witness who might have recognized her.

Katsa is the very definition of a strong female protagonist.  Not the physical strength, though obviously she has that in abundance, but the strength of character.  She is her own person, and she doesn’t need to hide behind or depend on anyone else; but at the same time, she can accept help with grace.  She doesn’t stupidly insist on doing everything herself and shutting out the world.  When things go wrong, she takes action—and responsibility.

I thought the interactions between her and the two potential love interests were very well done, and thought-provoking in ways you don’t find in most teen books.  When her friend turns out to be in love with her, she has the admittedly cliché reaction of having never seen it coming.  But instead of being flattered by his protectiveness, she feels insulted; after all, she can defend herself better than anyone else in seven kingdoms.  His assumption that she would change her mind about wanting children was particularly condescending, and I loved Katsa’s disgusted reaction.

I think it’s so important for young adult books in particular to show young women that they don’t need to conform to the expectations of a handsome man just because he likes her.  Her life doesn’t need to become about him—even when she does like him back.  When Katsa finally does fall in love, I love that she doesn’t turn to melodrama and decide that she can never be with him without being owned by him, so they must break their hearts and never be together.  But she also doesn’t just jump into the sack with him.  She takes the time to think about the consequences, not only the immediate ones, but whether she can be his lover without feeling owned, whether she’ll be able to leave, and how it will affect his feelings when she does.

The final showdown with the evil king was abrupt, but I realized, reading the denouement afterward, that it fit.  The encounter didn’t deserve any more page time, because it wasn’t actually the focus of the book.  Katsa’s acceptance of herself is the focus, and her relationships with the other characters.  It was only right to spend more time dealing with the consequences of the king’s evil and Katsa’s role in his demise (sorry, hope that didn’t spoil anything…but come on, was he ever going to win?) than with the actual encounter.

Graceling is a thoughtful, imaginative, and thoroughly enjoyable book, which I heartily recommend.  I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.