Almost the only thing I don't like about this book is the title. It's just too nondescript, and I kept forgetting what it was. I kept telling my husband about this great Elizabeth Bear book I was reading....uh...what's-it's-title. I can remember the titles for the next two in the series much more easily, for some reason. But this one kept escaping my brain.
Everything else, though, was great. This is a thoroughly engrossing fantasy, set on the steppes, of, presuming this world has any kind of equivalency to our own, parts of Asia, set shortly after the time of again, presuming equivalency, Genghis Khan. But it is a world all its own. There are multiple cultures, landscapes, even skies.
Oh, the skies. I loved this aspect of the magic of the world, the idea that the sky over your heads was literally different depending on what kingdom's sphere of influence you were in. Also, the moons that represented the descendants of the Great Khagan, which disappeared from the sky as the people they represent disappear from the living. Makes it easy to see if your enemies are dead, when families turn on each other.
One such survivor of a civil war between his brother and uncle is Temur, who travels with a caravan of the survivors, hiding his identity. They are attacked by ghosts, and the woman he has been forming some kind of unclassifiable relationship with is taken. In his efforts to find her, he runs into two other women, one a newly-minted wizard, Samarkar, another a woman who underwent the necessary sacrifices to become a wizard, but found no access to her power. They are looking into a city that has been ravaged by ghosts, all the inhabitants taken. It took a great and evil power to do that.
While riding back to Samarkar's city, they are stalked/approached by a giant tiger-woman, Hrahima. The adventures take them back to the city, and then fleeing from it, as power struggles within Samarkar's family reach a boiling point.
This book is obviously the first in a series, as it does not so much come to a climax as set up for the next book. There is a big and thoroughly interesting fight at the end, but it is very obviously a "the journey was just beginning" moment. And with fantasy like this, that does not upset me in the least.
One thing that does delight me is the sheer number of female characters in this book! They are all distinct characters, which I should not have to mention, but somehow still do. Heck, two of them are pregnant. And that's done in interesting ways, bringing into consideration the vulnerabilities that pregnancy brings, and giving pressing reasons for why they must get involved anyway.
Temur and a mute monk are the only two of the group of travellers who are men, and the rest are women, as are the rulers of at least two places they stop along the way. And yet, this isn't a simplistic look at gender. It's complex, and each culture has its own rules for women and how they should behave, and dress, and what place they play in dynastic succession. It is refreshing to have a fantasy book that has more a token male than a token female in the group of brave adventurers. (Well, two. And a bunch of the background characters.) But when you're talking about those in the shadow of power, and what that does, it makes perfect sense to focus on women.
This was a breath of fresh air in the fantasy world, with vivid characters and a situation that does put most of the characters under extreme pressure, and we get to watch as they try to get themselves out. I am very much looking forward to the next two. And the recently announced ones that will be forthcoming eventually.