Sometimes you read a book and enjoy it while reading, only to find it falls apart when you think about it later. The inverse happened to me with Philippa Ballantine’s Geist. I enjoyed it, and then the more I thought about it, the more I found to appreciate.
Geist is a secondary-world fantasy, set on the continent of Arkaym. The residents of Arkaym fear the geists, powerful otherworldly spirits that can enter the physical realm and possess people. Standing between the populace and the geists is the Order, which can best be described as a (mixed-gender, non-celibate) organization of warrior monks. The members of the Order are classified by their skill set: Actives have the power to blast geists with offensive magic, but are dependent upon Sensitives to discern the spirit’s presence and strength. Actives and Sensitives work together in pairs, though each camp has some disdain for the other.
Deacon Sorcha Faris, a strong Active, is assigned a new partner after her previous Sensitive (and estranged husband) is rendered out of commission. She and this new partner, the still-green Merrick Chambers, are assigned to investigate mysterious goings-on in the remote city of Ulrich. A disaster crosses their paths with that of Raed Rossin, a pretender to the imperial throne. There are conspiracies afoot, and the geists are behaving in ways believed to be impossible. The three protagonists’ fight to survive leads them to break all manner of protocol and tradition.
Ballantine’s world-building is subtle. Instead of spoon-feeding or info-dumping, Ballantine gives readers exactly the amount of information they need at a particular moment. As a result, reading Geist feels like an extended leap of faith. It’s like walking in a bank of fog, carrying a lantern that illuminates only the next step ahead; we have to trust that Ballantine will make sure the road keeps appearing in front of us. She does — the story never becomes confusing — but it can be a little disconcerting if you’re used to a more heavy-handed style of world-building. In retrospect, though, it’s also really gratifying. I feel the urge to wave the book around and shout, “Hey, writers! Here’s how you build a world without showing all of your work on every single page!”
The characterization is fantastic. Sorcha, in particular, jumps right off the page; an abrasive, snarky, sometimes narrow-minded, yet often endearing woman who is determined to do what’s right and likes her cigars. Merrick is less sharply drawn but also lovable, and Raed — a noble rogue with a dark secret — may just win my award for “Hottest Fantasy Hero Since Joscelin Verreuil.”
The plot moves quickly and is peppered with banter and sexual tension. The ending is not a cliffhanger, but left me eager for more; I just have to know what happens with these characters! Geist will appeal to urban fantasy fans willing to venture into a wholly invented world, and to high fantasy fans that don’t mind a story that’s a little sexy. I thoroughly enjoyed this character-driven novel that isn’t quite like anything else I’ve read.