In my recent review of Rosa and the Veil of Gold by Kim Wilkins I offered praise for the story's historical research and censure for its unlikable characters. It was a novel, I felt, that demonstrated how weak protagonists can derail a good premise. In reviewing Kari Sperring's first novel, Living with Ghosts, I find myself facing the reverse of this dilemma. Living with Ghosts, a dark fantasy of eldritch magic and political intrigue inspired (as Sperring notes on her website) by Alexander Dumas, has a murky premise and some even murkier prose, but the characters are so appealing that you hang on every twist of their carmined lips—even when you'd rather throw this beguiling, bewildering novel across the room.
Perhaps I'm being a tad melodramatic. That would certainly fit with Sperring's milieu. Living with Ghosts takes place in the uber-Gothic city of Merafi, a labyrinth of suffocatingly misty canals and cobbled squares significantly bisected by a river. Merafi is home to the ravishing Gracielis de Varnaq: "a failed assassin priest turned courtesan and spy," as the book's back cover helpfully has it. On top of this impressive resume, Gracielis also possesses the ability to see ghosts—such as that of the deceased nobleman Valdarrien of the Far Blays, a rakish aristocrat killed in a duel six years before. Valdarrien's friend, the aristocratic Thiercelin, has caught a few glimpses of the dead man himself which, as Merafi has been made "opaque" to supernatural forces, no one but Gracielis should be able to do. Now married to Valdarrien's sister Yvellaine, a politician who continually—though unintentionally—neglects him for the sake of duty, Thiercelin may have ulterior motives for seeking Gracielis's charming company. But his designs probably didn't include finding himself caught up in the plotting of Graceilis's mistress, the outland sorceress Quenfrida, who plans to destroy Merafi by contaminating its river with a supernatural plague. As Quenfrida's spells whittle down the barriers between the magical and the mundane, ghosts both benign and terrible begin to walk the night.
Or something like that. Tied up in the whole shebang is the ghost Valdarrien's attempt to reunite with his former lover, swordswoman Iareth Yscothi—an outlander on a diplomatic mission to Merafi with her anti-Merafien kinsman Prince Kenan—and the hopeless struggles of a city guardsman named Joyain who realizes Merafi is on the fast track to hell but fears he'll be labeled mad if he tells someone about the mist monsters who attacked him on his way home, or voices his suspicions about the origins of the ferocious plague that has begun to sweep the poorer quarters of the city.
This all sounds very entertaining, but Sperring is more interested in the psychological minutia of her characters than in the enormous swashbuckling potential of her premise. There are endless pages of Gracielis sensing that something is wrong with Merafi's now-haunted river before anything remotely threatening emerges to trouble the cast. Joyain's sub-plot—which hints promisingly at a French Terror-like uprising among the plague inflicted lower classes—suffers from most of its action being summed up after the fact. And many of the revelatory moments take place in dreams and flashbacks, such as the following in which Gracielis dreams about his failed initiation to the order of assassin priests (also known as the undarii) and drops some confounding hints about how magic in Ghosts might work:
Gracielis stood barefoot, naked to the waist, hair unbound around him, listening to the melody of sweet silver bells. They were strung in their thousands through the tree branches, each one named, each one a memory. [H]is body was drunk with fasting. The mist filling his eyes granted him a sight clearer than the clear daily air. The world sang beneath him, within him, in the myriad voices of the bells. (p. 177)
This is typical of the novel's prose. Sperring writes with sensuous grace but her meaning isn't always clear. She describes her world using an elevated, often cloyingly sensual style, filled with descriptions of mist and perfume that we realize too slowly have actual bearing on the plot. Here, midway through the novel, we still have no real idea of how her world works and these hints about bells and memories don't make it any more clear. We have also, at this point, been inundated with so many descriptions of mist (rising from the river, haunting both streets and minds) that it is hard to tell if the pall over Gracielis's eyes is physical, metaphorical or magical. As we're still pondering which details are important, or even concrete, Sperring inserts a second vision into her hero's dream, which only increases the confusion:
The world fell apart about him. He was drenched under a torrent of ice-chill water. A mighty waterfall thundered beside him, behind him. His vision blocked, blurred under the flow. He stood on slick hard stone, treacherous with rough edges, canted water wards by centuries of pounding. Between him and the water there was a haloing silhouette. A man's head and torso, naked and muscular, swan wings beating where his arms should be. That's not real, I'm seeing it wrong, he's a man, a man, but the swan is within him . . . (p. 178)
That's another thing: on top of ghosts, assassin priests and supernatural plague, Sperring's world also contains a proud history of shape shifters. Much of the plot turns on who has ancient shape-shifting blood and who doesn't. Magical concepts pile up on one another and while Sperring's prose certainly excels at making us feel their "otherness" it's hard for the reader to nail down how everything fits together. Perfume, for example, is a huge feature of Sperring's magical system—a way for sorcerers to identify one another—but how does one wrestle meaning from an explanation like this (in a passage where a rival undarii sizes up Gracielis at a ball):
Auburn curls and fair skin. A scent blended at pulse points, to speak to those who might hear it in the syllables of a name. (p. 314)
This is a gorgeous sentence, "skin," "scent" and "pulse" giving a physical, erotic charge to its subject. Sperring suggests that magic is a sensual thing in itself, connected to speech and scent—but how? What does this mean for the characters? Why would rival sorcerers wish to identify themselves to one another through scent signatures anyway? When magic in a fantasy novel is obfuscated to this extent it becomes more like window dressing than a tangible force with visceral consequences and one senses that Sperring is trying for the opposite effect.
On the other hand, it's easy to forgive Sperring's imperfections in this department because for visceral force we have her wonderful characters. Living with Ghosts is a delightfully coy title for a tale in which supernatural haunts take a backseat to the ghosts of longing and regret that consume its characters. In an early scene that sets the tone for the novel, we are shown how the fallen Gracielis has been physically and emotionally enslaved by the sorceress Quenfrida.
It was hard not to look at her. The bodice of her plain gown was fastened at the front. Almost casually, she began to loosen it, so that the sleeve tops slid away from her shoulders. He followed the motion, a faint flush heating his skin. She smiled and reached up to unpin her hair. He looked away. Her laugh was deep and not entirely kind. He was her creature utterly, and she knew it. (p. 7)
When Sperring describes her character interaction in real time sans magic it seems to work better and, indeed, cast more of a spell. Here, by linking Quenfrida's simple actions to Graceilis's physical response the reader can grasp the dynamic of their relationship without any mental gymnastics. Scenes like this also helpfully reinforce Sperring's theme: that we are all shaped by our past relationships. Living With Ghosts is, in fact, delightfully obsessed with relationship dynamics. It's no accident that so many scenes begin or end in the bedroom. As the story progresses moments of damnation and redemption are often played out between the sheets as Sperring's lovers struggle to break off harmful relationships, form positive ones or simply use one another to escape painful memories.
In case it isn't evident by now, Sperring also has a refreshing take on gender roles. In Dumas's day women were often assigned the roles of unobtainable maiden or "fainting prize." Here, in a nice twist on the classic ribald, that role is firmly assigned to the men. Merafi is run by ruthless sorceresses (Quenfrida) and savvy female politicians (Yvellaine). More often than not it's the men who do the fainting and submitting as awesome, female driven forces of magic and intrigue begin to overwhelm the city.
There's also a nice switch from the typical hetero-centric romance tale. Far from your traditional male-female romance it's the interplay between Theircelin and Gracielis, two trapped and neglected men whose smoldering attraction would give Bella and Edward a run for their money, which makes up the emotional core of the story.
From suffering husband to sneering dominatrix, there's a character for every taste in Ghosts, but the vulnerable, bisexual Gracielis is by far the standout. You simply don't see many "painted toy" (as another character refers to him) heroes in fantasy and the combination of eroticism and melodrama with which Sperring writes makes this warm hearted, occasionally obnoxious and always riveting character the perfect protagonist for the tale. From the loveknots in his hair to his predilection for hot chocolate ("Wine would ruin me," he proclaims) Sperring has taken so much care to make Gracielis live that you might just smell his perfume.
Gracielis also does some impressive metaphoric duties, for his situation with Quenfrida perfectly reflects the predicament of all the other major characters. From Valdarrien—caught between life and death—to Theircelin, beginning to wonder if a fling with Gracielis might dispel his guilt over his failing marriage, there's not a character who doesn't suffer some form of emotional bondage. It's these emotional dilemmas that ultimately makes Ghosts such a fun read. We may not know or care much about those too-little-seen mist monsters—but we certainly care about Sperring's people and they only grow more interesting as things get bleaker. Sperring may have yet to work out the finer details of her mythos or match the high-adventure tale she seems to want to tell with the emotional gravity she already possesses, but Living with Ghosts is a promising start. There's plenty of time to flesh out the details before Gracielis returns to haunt the streets of Merafi once more.
Hannah Strom-Martin's short story "Father Pena's Last Dance" appeared in the 2009 Halloween issue of Realms of Fantasy.