Living with Ghosts by Kari Sperring
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I did not have a neutral experience with this book.
(This review may be more spoiler-ish than usual, though I've tried to be as circuitous as possible. You have been warned.)
Old powers threaten the city of Merafi, and a handful of its denizens - from a noble lord to a guard captain to a foreign spy - struggle to deal with the forces that have been awakened. There were parts of this book I loved; there were parts I hated, and I can't entirely pick out what is wholly personal taste and what is an objective issue ... though, of course, reviews are always to some degree subjective.
The world here is beautifully realized with a deep, rich history and a nice iceberg effect: you have the sense of more that isn't shared with the reader. Unfortunately, while the worldbuilding is generally good, for me there wasn't enough of it given in the right places. I had trouble getting through the first quarter of the book because, though I felt the looming doom, I didn't feel like I understood enough of the magic / situation to get a) an idea what the stakes were or b) a sense of what the main characters might be able to do about it. That made their efforts feel a bit pointless. Later in the story, I thought the wide-view descriptions of power sweeping over the city were striking ... but I also found them somewhat opaque, and once more, I didn't feel as if it was well explained how the characters could respond and why. There's a lack of specificity, and with some magic systems / plots, that works, but for me and in this book, it didn't.
Another great effect of the book is how the characters are woven together. They are interconnected as one would expect with the movers and shakers of a large, pre-modern city, which allows some great crossing of plotlines and shared (or missed) information, without straining credulity - everyone doesn't know everyone, and two characters might be only connected thirdhand. (Let's play six degrees of Yviane!) Sperring also does a great job of using this setup to increase tension, without confusing the reader about what each character knows, or boring the reader by repeating the same information. It's always a little different, a little near.
And I loved some of the characters: outwardly flighty but inwardly brilliant Miraude; insouciant ghost Valdarrien; and the cool, mysterious Iareth. But notice these are all more peripheral characters I'm mentioning: it was the central cast that disappointed me. It took me a while to engage with Gracielis; I just didn't care that much for the character. I found the exaggerated femininity to be unsuited to his role / supposed gift for seduction. I would think, if you're a male prostitute and the majority (if not all) your clients are female, you'd be better suited to the appearance of picture-perfect masculinity. At least show him swapping back and forth between modes (as it were).
Then there's the problematic fight between Thiercelin and his wife, which is exasperating from the first act. It would be quickly defused by honest communication, but they keep coming up with increasingly strained reasons not to do so. It's the most exasperating part of a romcom strung out over a couple hundred pages ... and the only reason I can really see for it to exist is to excuse Thiercelin so he can have thoughts of infidelity. For me, that fails: I don't see their relationship as estranged enough to justify it. Further, I don't see why Thiercelin needs to gravitate towards Gracielis this way: all the emotional energy between the two men can certainly stand without physicality.
That aside, the climax of this book holds some really interesting episodes and surprises. I can't be more specific without giving the game away. In summary: there are some stark images and wonderful occurrences in this book, but I also wanted to tear my hair out at points.
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