I’m not a compulsive book-finisher. If something is terrible, I’ll stop reading and move on, but there’s also a frustrating place between good enough to enjoy and bad enough to put down without guilt or curiosity. Kari Sperring’s Living With Ghosts, appropriately enough, falls into that gray area. It was tantalizingly almost good.
Sperring’s world has three cities: Tarnaroq, home of mages called undarii who deal with death; Lunedith, which follows its ancient clan ways; and Merafi, our setting. Merafi has no truck with ghosts or the clan magics, a position it can hold because of a big anti-ghost binding laid there by its founder. I thought of it as 18th-century Paris.
According to the back cover, main character Gracielis is a “failed assassin priest turned courtesan and spy,” which wins my personal Copy-Fail Award, with all runners-up being other parts of this back cover. (Three ellipses? Really?) Gracielis failed the final test to become undarios, but he still sees ghosts, which shouldn’t be happening in protected Merafi. Up in the palace, Yvelliane d’IIlandre is trying to hold the city’s government together while its queen is dying, an especially difficult task now that the troublemaking delegation from Lunedith has arrived, there’s plague in the lower city, and strange creatures have appeared in the mists. Yvelliane’s husband Thiercelin is fiercely bored with his wife working all the time, and, oh yeah, he saw a ghost the other day….
The character relationships are all interlaced: this one married to that one, whose brother loved that one, who ends up staying with…you get it. Everyone is a viewpoint character, so you see them from the inside and the outside at different times and in different contexts, and Sperring juggles them quite well. I liked the idea of a busy politician and her moping husband, and Thierry was well-drawn and sympathetic. I loved Gracielis’s patron Amalie and the Tarnaroqui envoy Iareth Yscoithi, enough that I was very angry at how Iareth ends up. Her taste in men is abominable; when we meet her true love Valdin, who has been built up as a rakish and tragic duelist, he’s actually just immature and whiny, the sort of guy that Ellen Kushner's Richard St. Vier would smack as soon as look at. The uneven characterization bothered me, but the ones I liked were enough to keep me reading.
The plot’s neat—almost pat—causality also gave the book momentum, although sometimes the payoff was too long in coming. At first, I thought that Living With Ghosts would be better if it were tighter, with less chance to lose the tension generated by the scenes with actual plot in them, but I got towards the end, I wished that I had more justification for events. Things that have to happen just happen, even if there’s no good reason other than that’s how the plot wraps up. It's a reminder of how hard this book-writing thing must be—and who am I to throw stones, when I don’t do it?—to have a book that works paragraph by paragraph, page by page, but doesn’t come together when you add them all up.
All of that said, you may very well like the book, dear reader, so I’m offering up my review copy to the first commenter who specifically asks for it; if you are that person, e-mail me your snail-mail address at megan dot messinger at macmillan dot com. It’s a regular mass market paperback with some “carried it in my messenger bag for two weeks” wear. Cave lector.