When you’ve shared a review site with someone for a long time, you start to get a feel for how your tastes are similar — and how they’re different. Being aware of these differences means that sometimes a negative review from one of your co-reviewers can make you want to read the book! For example, I know that if Kat finds a heroine too snarky, I’ll probably love her. Similarly, John and I often disagree on the “relationship stuff” in books. Recently he read Kari Sperring’s Living with Ghosts and had trouble with it, but from his review I could tell it was probably something I’d like. I was right, and Living with Ghosts was a terrific read for me.
It starts when a nobleman, Thiercelin, seeks out a male courtesan, Gracielis, to help him with a problem — he’s been seeing the ghost of his dead best friend Valdarrien. Gracielis has the ability to see ghosts. His uncanny abilities go beyond that, as it happens; he once trained for a shadowy priesthood known as the undarii. But he shied away from the final initiation and sees himself as a failure. What he knows about the supernatural, though, tells him that Valdarrien’s appearance in the city of Merafi is a bad sign. Merafi was intentionally built in a place that dampens magic, and this effect was amplified by a long-ago blood sacrifice enacted by the founder of the current ruling dynasty. If ghosts are appearing outside a few specific circumstances, it’s a sign that Merafi’s protections are unraveling.
This ties in, it turns out, with a plot against the throne. As the boundaries between the living and the dead begin to break down, a small group of reluctantly entangled characters are the only ones who can save the city. All are complex, flawed characters whose past mistakes come to bear on the current situation, and all of them change and develop throughout the novel. They are connected to each other in an intricate web of relationships: friends, relatives, ex-lovers.
This web of relationships is complex enough that it could be confusing for some readers, especially when the names are added in; Sperring’s character names are a mouthful, and most have a nickname too. For example, Valdarrien becomes Valdin and Yvelliane becomes Yviane. Perhaps the most confusing is that Illandre and Allandur are the same family name, in the Merafien and Lunedithin languages respectively. Pronounced aloud, it makes sense, but reading it in print, I was embarrassingly slow to pick up on that. There’s also a political situation to grasp, and so it’s a fair amount of knowledge for a reader to absorb. Sperring makes the wise decision to develop the plot slowly and gradually during these initial chapters. This is one case where a slow start is extremely helpful. We aren’t thrown into an epic battle, for example, without figuring out who the players are first. Sperring also builds the mood during these chapters; the incessant rain at first just seems like a fitting backdrop for the characters’ troubled moods, but then evokes its own dread as the nature of Merafi’s protections is revealed and one considers what effect the rain might have upon them.
After that, the deluge — pardon the ancien regime pun, but it seems fitting as Merafi is clearly influenced by Bourbon France. The magic in Living with Ghosts is mysterious and elemental. It reminds me of something George R.R. Martin said about magic in fantasy fiction in an interview: “I can tell you generally that when treating with magic in fantasy, you have to keep it magical. Many fantasy writers work out these detailed systems, and rules, and I think that’s a mistake. For magic to be effective in a literary sense, it has to be unknowable and strange and dangerous, with forces that can’t be predicted or controlled. That makes it, I think, much more interesting and evocative. It functions as a symbol or metaphor of all the forces in the universe we don’t understand and maybe never will.” This is that kind of magic, and once in a while it’s confusing but overall it works — and may just send shivers down your spine. The characters, as mentioned above, grow and change throughout the story. This is both a reaction to the events and a force that helps shape the events. For example, Gracielis must overcome his feelings of inadequacy if he’s to help save the city; and the way the river’s nature and Valdarrien’s emotional state weave together at the climactic moment is simply perfect and heartbreaking.
Living with Ghosts is the kind of book about which one might say, “this is the sort of thing you will like, if this is the sort of thing you like.” There’s a certain type of decadent, historically-influenced, character-driven, political, and often urban fantasy that I deeply enjoy and that is sometimes hard to find. Definitely give Sperring a try if you like Jacqueline Carey, Ellen Kushner, and Lane Robins. The writing is beautiful, the characters are well-drawn, and the story is scary and tragic and deeply romantic, without being a romance (i.e. no tidy happily-ever-after here).
(The Kindle edition of Living with Ghosts has one slightly annoying flaw: some of the line breaks that denote point-of-view shifts are missing. Most of the time it’s easy to reorient yourself, but in one scene toward the end, I briefly thought Joyain had actually morphed into Valdarrien via magic, which would have been a huge plot twist! But it was just a missing line break.)