Gracielis, the failed assassin priest turned courtesan and spy, wants to deny his strange abilities, yet he cannot ignore the ghostly presence that shadows him or the sorceress that who rules him. Thiercelin wants his wife’s love but all her time and energy are devoted to the preservation of Merafi and its ruler. Valdarrien, slain in a duel, wants to find his lost love and to live again. And the loyal soldier Joyain just wants a quiet life.
But in the ancient city of Merafi, you don’t always get what you want.
For centuries, Merafi’s safety and prosperity have relied on a pact sealed in blood between its first king and the land’s elemental forces. The city should be immune to the powers inherited by Gracielis and his race, and opaque to ghosts and mystical creatures. But now a sorceress and a prince have broken the pact. The city’s river is raging, its floodwaters bearing plague, supernatural violence, and destruction. Fantastical creatures walk the night. The dead – some of them – are trying to return. The rational, irreligious Merafiens no longer believe in elemental powers and are blind to their sudden danger.
Trapped by the vows binding him to the sorceress, Gracielis fears for those he has come to love…
Desperate to prove himself to his wife, Thiercelin takes ever greater risks…
In the nighttime streets, Joyain fights deadly mist wraiths…
And as death and disaster spread, the magic protecting Merafi weakens – and Valdarrien’s ghost grows ever stronger…
Sometimes, blurbs are perfect. Sometimes, blurbs are utterly misleading. And sometimes, they describe only half the book in front of you. Living With Ghosts falls into that last category. Kari Sperring’s novel is a creeping horror, it is a supernatural frightfest, but it’s also a tale of manners, of romance, and of politics. Oh, and queerness.
Living With Ghosts is far from the queerest novel I have ever read, but it is certainly a queer one; the growing romance between Gracielis and Thiercelin is beautifully drawn and never is it shown to be problematic because it is queer, only because Thiercelin feels conflicted about it. Mind you, it is the only queer relationship we see, and whilst it is one of the central relationships, Sperring does rather stand by monogamy, polyamory never appearing to occur to any of these characters as an option; and however androgyne Gracielis’ self-presentation may be, in the end the novel confirms firmly to the gender binary.
Looking at it in such harsh terms may be doing it a disservice, however. Sperring’s real strength here is her characterwork; Living With Ghosts is full of beautifully human, interesting, flawed people, from the smarter-than-she-seems Miraude to hardworking and dedicated Yvellaine; from sweet, seductive, conflicted Gracielis to ghostly Valdarrien; and from seductress Quenfrida to Amalie, merchant and beloved gentle client of Gracieux. Not only does each character have a very different perspective that bleeds into the narrative beautifully, but they’re also very different in terms of approach; these aren’t all characters who seem to differ but act in the same kind of way, but characters who really are individuals, who clearly have lives in the margins beyond the page, who we can imagine acting on their own when Living With Ghosts is turning its attention elsewhere. That’s without Sperring’s beautifully drawn relationships; all kinds are on display here, from unhealthy possessiveness to a beautiful but failing marriage. The way these romances grow, interact, dissolve or die is Sperring’s real magic; they feel vivid and real, and play on our heartstrings with stunning grace.
The style of the novel is beautiful; Sperring’s hand with language and for turns of phrase is very much on display in Living With Ghosts, as she makes the language fit both character and situation. Hence we can go from formality at court or elegance with Gracielis to almost pulpy stylings as we switch viewpoints; this really heightens the scene and feel of the novel, bringing everything home and making it hit harder. The words carry their weight, and bring along with them a whole emotional frieghting, but even they can’t carry the plot.
That, sadly, is where Living With Ghosts falters. The novel definitely has an interesting plot in skeleton form, with the interaction of politics, relationships and magic, as Merafi comes under attack and Thiercelin is drawn in to both the twilight world of magic and of Gracielis. The ideas on display are fantastic and there are some really crunchy, interesting things going on in this plot, not least the look at ideas of racial purity and colonialism. However, Living With Ghosts feels both flabby and messy. What begins as a comedy of manners with added ghosts descends, by the close of the novel, into grimdark splattergore; what begins as a set of interesting plots and characters become so tangled, confused and messy that they really lose the reader. This is a book which could have done with a lot of cleaning; the grimdark feels slightly forced after the beginning, which while making an interesting contrast, seems to get rather lost under what follows.
Realistically, Living With Ghosts is trying to be more than one story; and Sperring couldn’t decide which to make it, so she made it both. Sadly, that means beautiful characters and wonderful romances get lost under an awful lot of messy plotlines. This is a good book, but it’s certainly not great.