Posts Tagged ‘assassin’

Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

June 17, 2012 3 comments

Wonderful jacket artwork from Donato Giancola


Modern authors are always under pressure to come up with the next big thing. Back in the Golden Age of pulps, it was easier. Editors would send out messages to all the writers on their lists demanding twenty short stories by the end of the month, and “some of them damn well better be good!” In this scatter gun approach to publishing, there was an incredible volume of pure crud — see Sturgeon’s Law — but equally a small percentage of wonderfully inventive fiction. All you had to do as a reader was filter out the rubbish to get to the good stuff. Today we’ve got the reverse problem. Instead of there being several hundred magazine and publishing houses churning out books by the thousands, there are only a few. With tens of thousands of wanna-be authors and slush piles growing ever taller, this puts terrible pressure on editors to pick only the good stuff. To get noticed and become one of the few people published today, authors need a mixture of craft and creativity. In terms of plotting, there’s very little that hasn’t already been done to death. So the skill of an author is to take an idea and dress it up in a slightly different way so we won’t notice it’s not very original.


I start in this way because, in these days of mashups with Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter just about to hit the big screen, Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear (TOR, 2012) has managed to come up with something rather unusual. Most fantasy stories fall into very predictable formats as the fight promoters match up the Hero with the Dark Lord in the best of three falls. Magic will be allowed but not necessarily gouging or cowardly blows. There may be elves or other “folk” who take sides in the good vs. evil contest, a wiseacre will advise the Hero who often has to come out of his/her shell and discover the strength within before being able to vanquish the forces of evil, there should be a quest, and there will be a love interest which may help or hinder the Hero at the whim of the author. So, to provide variety, Elizabeth Bear has hit on the idea of Genghis Khan vs. Aladdin, i.e. of conflating the excitement of horse-born armies thundering across the Steppes with the tropes of One Thousand and One Nights. This is not entirely unfair because, once the Mongol Hordes got going, they occupied a goodly chunk of Central Asia and many of the myths and legends that ended up in the Arabian Nights originated from that region.

Elizabeth Bear on display with a book at Eurocon


We start with the battle for the city of Qarash between claimants to the throne of the Khagan. Quori Buqa’s army smashes the defensive forces led by Qulan and levels the city. Timur is one of the few left alive. As the Khagan’s grandson, he’s potentially in line for succession to the throne, but that’s not on his mind as he slowly moves away from the military disaster. The practicalities of survival dominate. He’s adopted by a small kin group and, after a short courtship, falls into a relationship with Edene. What he does not know is that Quori Buqa is being assisted by Al-Sepehr, a powerful wizard (when he communicates with Quori Buqa, he uses the name Ala-Din). Having used the human armies to generate death on an industrial scale, our wizard can raise them as an army of ghosts as did his forebear Sepehr al-Racid ibn Sepehr. This puts the wizard in a potentially dominant position, but the actual process is very tiring. Hence, there’s still a need for human agents. To keep options open, a platoon of ghosts is sent to kidnap Timur. Unfortunately, he fights back. Frustrated, the ghosts carry off Edene instead. This sets Timur off on a quest to find his lost partner. On the way, he meets up with Samarkar, a newly qualified wizard, and they must defend themselves as individuals and seek to make the world safe from the ghost army. For Quori Buqa, his nephew Timur is an unfortunate loose end. The tribes will not unite while a legitimate claimant to the throne is still alive. He therefore demands Ala-Din kills his rival. This drive for unity in the tribes is not what Al-Sepehr has been working towards but, perhaps, that’s what Fate demands and there will be other ways to destabilise the Mongol Empire.


Range of Ghosts is firmly rooted in the culture of nomadic tribes so, with everything filtered through the experience of a man who’s spent his life on and around horses, it’s hardly surprising we get such a detailed picture of life, literally from the ground up. It’s actually worth reading just to get a feel for the life on the Steppes. Even the horses get to be real people. As a piece of meticulous background research, it reminded me of Until the Sun Falls by Cecilia Holland which is straight historical fiction. To find such impressive detail in a work of fantasy is even more delightful as the wizard’s manipulation of the Khagan succession and life on the Steppes reaches a critical juncture. Once the magic kicks in, we get a wonderful blend as our heroic group of Mongol Prince, apprentice wizard, Cho-tse and kung fu monk have to fend off assassins and the attack of a rukh or roc as they make their way across the war-torn Empire. It’s all great fun and one of the best fantasy books I’ve read so far this year.


The jacket artwork by Donato Giancola is particularly fine.


For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Bear, see:
ad eternum
Book of Iron
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette)
Seven for a Secret
Shattered Pillars
Shoggoths in Bloom
Steles of the Sky
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette)
The White City


Assassin and other stories by Steven Barnes

February 19, 2011 Leave a comment

This collection by Steven Barnes from ISFiC Press is made up of an original short novel called Assassin: The Invisible Imam, plus four short stories and a teleplay.

The short novel is set around the time of the Third Crusade. It kicks off in 1178, and more or less ends with the death of Barbarossa in 1190. With the exception of one element in the final pages suggesting a supernatural entity, this is intended to be an essentially straight historical novel. We can ignore the faintly superhuman qualities of our antihero, Abdul-Wahid, who later assumes the name Haytham. This is characteristic of much of Steven Barnes’ fiction. Starting with the initial novel Streetlethal, he specialises in characters with supreme fighting skills.

Let’s begin this discussion with the faintly unusual decision to tell the story from the point of view of one of the Hashishiyyin. Western writers tend to support the Christian sides of the wars so it makes a change to see what a contemporary American author makes of the politics of the times. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the original assassins have never had a very good press. Starting almost immediately after their appearance in the conflict, they have been demonised as drug-soaked religious fanatics. A manipulation you would expect from those controlling the discourse in the West. Even now, Arab-based freedom fighters are smeared with the “al-Qaeda” label, guaranteed to make Western readers think them all dangerously militant Islamists. So, this choice to look at the recruitment, training and activities of the original assassins makes a welcome addition to the historical fiction set in the twelfth century.

The result is good news and bad news. It has the chance to present a different view of the conflict by the recruitment of Abdul-Wahid who will become the ultimate fighter, and Hakeem who is destined to become a top intellectual. Switching between the two characters or showing them meeting up more often would give the novel the chance to define the historical context and more clearly state the Muslim view of the conflict as they defend their land. As Hakeem rises in the ranks of the hierarchy, he would gain an increasingly informed overview that could be pitted against the on-the-ground experiences of the fighter. Sadly, we only get to see the conflict from a superior foot-soldier’s point of view. This is rather frustrating because a better understanding of the relationships between the different Muslim factions and the different groups comprising the Crusader forces would enhance the novel. In this respect, the plotting is rather dated in approach. It reminds me of The White Company by Conan Doyle and similar books in emphasising the adventure to the detriment of the history. That said, the novel is actually refreshing in showing Abdul-Wahid as an essentially honourable man who increasingly acts as his conscience dictates rather than as a mere killing machine. It’s good to see a Western author make a hero out of someone killing Western Christians.

Steven Barnes: author and expert in martial arts

“The Woman in the Wall” is classic propaganda with an American woman finding herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. As anyone with intelligence would expect, ultimately, everyone will do whatever it takes to survive. In this, race or creed makes no difference. The imperative of self-preservation means the sacrifice of the veneer of civilisation. This is a straight polemical piece set in an African state after a military coup and only vaguely interesting.

“Trickster” is one of two stories jointly written with his wife, Tananarive Due. It’s a post-apocalypse story set in Africa some years after the War of the Worlds invasion, H. G. Wells style. It assumes that after the Martians died, the surviving humans cannibalised their tripod machines, creating simpler but no less deadly machines that could be used to take over the world. This is an interesting premise and, for once, the execution strikes a good balance between human relationships, surrounding events and consequences.

“The Locusts” was jointly written with Larry Niven and nominated for the Hugo Award in 1980. It’s a melancholic story, ruminating on one possible life cycle for the human race. Once you start going down the track of this particular idea, you get locked into the consequences and the authors are to be commended for allowing some residual humanity to assert itself towards the end. Anything less than this would have been unreasonably depressing.

“Father Steel” is a telestory that failed to make it through the animation process and on to the small screen. It’s rather good, this time using history to say something interesting about how fighting men can be moulded into an army and what must be done to maintain their morale when the going gets tough. Finally, “Danger Word”, the second story jointly written with his wife, takes us post-apocalypse again, this time with the living dead. It has a grandfather trying to protect his young grandson as the world around them collapses into anarchy. It has nice touches but, like all such stories, requires the old experienced man to act like an idiot. While the structure of the narrative is highly professional, it’s less than original.

Putting all together produces rather an odd result. The bulk of the content is straight or historical fiction, with three shorter genre pieces. Assassin has a slightly old-fashioned feel. It reminds me of the work produced by Conan Doyle, A. E. W. Mason and others, but does offer interest in giving a voice to Moslems defending their own land against invaders. “Trickster” is the most effective story and, if you have not read it before, “The Locusts” remains a clever idea, well-executed. So your decision whether to buy this book is simple. Given that Barnes, whether on his own or in tandem with others, produces readable prose, you take a view on whether the price of $30 is too much to pay for faintly controversial and what is to me not very original fiction.

Jacket art by Duncan Long.

For another review of a book by Steven Barnes, see Shadow Valley

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