Monday, January 16, 2012

Battle of the Books, Winter 2012, First Round :: Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear vs. Jack of Ravens by Mark Chadbourn

Range of GhostsJack of Ravens
Our penultimate first round match in the Winter 2012 Battle of the Books is between Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear and Jack of Ravens by Mark Chadbourn. The book I most want to continue reading after 25 pages will advance to the second round.

Range of Ghosts: Tor hardcover, March 2012, 334 pages. Elizabeth Bear is still a fairly new author; her first novel Hammered appeared in 2005. But she is so prolific it feels like she is a veteran of the field -- she has published upwards of 20 books already. She was the Campbell Award winner for best new author in 2005, and she has twice won the Hugo Award for her short fiction. On the strength of that record, we named Range of Ghosts one of our four seeded books for the Winter 2012 Battle of the Books.

Range of Ghosts is the first in a new epic fantasy trilogy, drawing heavily on the history of the Mongol Empire. As the story begins, the Great Khagan has died, and his descendants have fought a bloody battle over succession (the kind of civil war that actually fractured the Mongol Empire). Our hero Temur, grandson of the Great Khagan and younger brother of one of the main contenders to the throne, has survived the battle only because he was so grievously wounded he was left for dead. He struggles to survive and to find his way into exile, even as his uncle seeks to hunt him down.

Jack of Ravens: Pyr trade paperback, March 2012, 414 pages, cover art by John Picacio. British fantasy author Mark Chadbourn is also prolific, having published some 15 novels since 1992, and he is a two-time winner of the British Fantasy Award. He has been successful in Britain for many years, but only recently came to the attention of American readers with Pyr Books' U.S. reprints of his backlist.

First published in England in 2006, Jack of Ravens is the first in the Kingdom of the Serpent trilogy, which is related to Chadbourn's prior trilogies, The Age of Misrule and The Dark Age. The protagonist is Jack Churchill, who on the very first page finds himself somehow transported to the remote past, and immediately doing battle with supernatural creatures.

The Battle: Sorry if I'm spoiling the suspense here, but Range of Ghosts just has a kick-ass opening. It is beautifully written, and the opening image of Temur waking up badly injured, among countless dead warriors scattered about the steppe, pulls us into the story from the outset. We sympathize with Temur as he struggles to survive the next days, then gradually begins to ponder what future he can still lead. Meanwhile, a quick glimpse of the mysterious sorcerer aiding his uncle -- he has just sacrificed two young girls for his blood magic, so we know this guy means business -- keeps the dramatic tension up.

The icing on the cake is a gorgeous piece of supernatural imagery, as Temur watches the moons rise:
He tried not to count the moons as they rose but could not help himself. No bigger than Temur's smallest fingernail, each floated up the night like a reflection on dark water. One, two. A dozen. Fifteen. Thirty. Thirty-one. A scatter of hammered sequins in the veil the Eternal Sky drew across himself to become Mother Night.

Among them, no matter how he strained his eyes, he did not find the moon he most wished to see--the Roan Moon of his elder brother Qulan, with its dappled pattern of steel and silver.
* * *
Before the death of Mongke Khagan, there had been over a hundred moons. One for Mongke Khagan himself and one for each son and each grandson of his loins, and every living son and grandson and great-grandson of the Great Khagan Temusan as well--at least those born while the Great Khagan lived and reigned.

Every night since the war began, Temur had meant to keep himself from counting. And every night since, he had failed, and there had been fewer moons than the night before.
The bar was thus set very high for Jack of Ravens, and Chadbourn didn't clear it for me. There's nothing wrong with the opening of this book, just not quite enough right to compete with Range of Ghosts. The opening scene has our hero Jack battling a giant (pun intended by Chadbourn), and it would be a pretty good fight scene, except it's happening before we know the first thing about who (or where or when) this protagonist is, so we don't much understand why we should care.

Soon after, we realize that Jack has been thrown 2,000 years into the past, but there is a maddening vagueness to the narrative. We learn he doesn't remember very much, but Chadbourn doesn't stop to tell us clearly just what he does remember. Is he even from our time? As far as I know, he could be from the year 1900 or 2100. Really all we know of him is that he (conveniently) is a scholar of British history. I have no sense so far of his personality. He wants to get back to the present(?) because he's in love with some woman he can barely remember, but so far it doesn't mean much to me whether he succeeds. Perhaps I would gradually come to care about this fellow's plight, but the Battle of the Books format is unforgiving of "gradually."


Range of Ghosts advances to the second round, to take on either The Darkening Dream by Andy Gavin or The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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