I saw a lot of glowing reviews for Range of Ghosts long before I was ever interested in picking it up. After a while, though, the idea of the book sort of sunk in, and I placed it on hold. A few hours later, it was directly recommended to me on Twitter in the context of fantasy novels that acknowledge diverse cultures and languages. Doubly intrigued, I made a point to read it as soon as it arrived from the library.
Maybe my expectations were too high. Maybe I was looking so hard for an utterly new fantasy novel that I missed the other indicators. Maybe my tastes have changed. The fact is that ultimately Range of Ghosts disappointed somewhat. Not because it's a bad book. It really, really isn't. I enjoyed most of it. Rather, Range of Ghosts simply felt... familiar. And familiarity in a fantasy novel of this kind can signal a death knell.
Let's begin by acknowledging the diversity of the book. Or rather, the idea of diversity. Range of Ghosts is clearly heavily influenced by Mongolian-Chinese-Arab culture. Elizabeth Bear explicitly points to Genghis Khan and the Mongolian steppes as influencing her world. Names like Khagan instead of Khan, or Uthman for Ottoman do very little to mask the real-world influences. It was here that my skepticism brow rose, mostly because it didn't feel like anything new was added. Sure, the entire religious concepts were adjusted to fit the newly magical world, but at times I felt like Bear was taking far too few risks in her worldbuilding, as though she felt that the mere fact of a non-European influenced world would already break too far from fantasy standards. And so maybe that's why she stuck so close to our real-world.
With language too, I felt like perhaps I'd simply misunderstood the innovation of the novel. Range of Ghosts has references to multiple languages and multiple cultures, and does a nice job of showing people in awkward linguistic situations where they technically have no language in common. This in itself is a nice change from books that label a certain local language as "Common" (or something else self-centric along those lines), or altogether lump each racial group into one cultural identity. The only issue is that Bear introduces the struggles without entirely developing them, so there's conveniently always someone who's bi- or tri-lingual and somehow everyone picks up languages super fast, so the problem quickly disappears. It happened a couple of times, and each time I felt like it was a clear and weak cop-out from an otherwise realistically portrayed universal barrier.
Bear's writing is solid, but again not entirely fresh. It was enough to keep me clearly engaged in the story, but not quite enough to make me lose myself in it. The best fantasies (for me) are ones that overwhelm me and blur out the rest of the world. Range of Ghosts entertained me and kept me hooked, but failed that first test. At the end of the day, the writing is like the rest of the book - definitely good, but nothing particularly new.
Ultimately, I found the strength of the book to be in the story. Though I didn't form the tightest attachments to either of the main characters, both Temur and Samarkar seemed perfectly in place within the context of the broader plot. Bear managed to make even the more outlandish coincidences feel natural, and the overall flow was surprisingly good. The use of romance, however, frustrated me multiple times throughout the book - Temur's lover Edene felt very loosely sketched and much more of a cardboard cutout MPDG lover than an actual character, and scenes later in the book showcased a romance that had shown little-to-zero chemistry beforehand.
A lot of these flaws are not individual to Range of Ghosts, of course. Many of these issues stem from certain genre expectations or time-honored requirements (e.g. the romance). What makes Range of Ghosts nonetheless enjoyable - and perhaps even unique - is its ability to move past many of these smaller flaws and attempt to shake off the shackles of those expectations. Though I was moderately disappointed in Bear's worldbuilding in terms of its clear influences, the truth is that the scope Bear employs when discussing religion and the breadth of the world regardless is quite impressive. This was a world I could easily imagine, one that I saw quite vividly.
Here's the important test: Will I read the sequels to Range of Ghosts? And the answer is probably. Despite its flaws, Bear has created a world that I'm now curious about, and the last pages of Range of Ghosts left me especially intrigued and eager to know what happens next. Now I suppose I can only hope that the character development improves in the next books...