Philippa Ballantine – Geist

Between the living and the dead is the Order of the Deacons, protectors of the Empire, guardians against possession, sentinels enlisted to ward off malevolent hauntings by geists…

Among the most powerful of the Order is Sorcha Faris, now thrust into a partnership with the novice Deacon Merrick Chambers. They have been dispatched to the isolated village of Ulrich to to aid a Priory besieged by a surge of violent geist activity. With them is Raed Rossin, Pretender to the throne that Sorcha is sworn to protect, and bearer of a terrible curse.

But what greets them in the strange settlement is something far more predatory and more horrifying than any mere haunting. And as she uncovers a tradition of twisted rituals passed down through the dark reaches of history, Sorcha will be forced to reconsider everything she thinks she knows. Even if she makes it out of Ulrich alive, what in the hell is she returning to?

I can’t remember when or where I first heard of Geist, but I do know that after I did, the book quickly went on my wish list, as the premise sounded like good old, traditional fantasy. Which it wasn’t and which certainly in the first couple of chapters made it hard for me to settle into the story. The book is a hodgepodge of traditional epic fantasy and steampunk elements. However the steampunk elements felt sort of tacked in and were at times jarring. For example, Sorcha smokes cigars, but for some reason the word ‘cigar’ kept jumping out at me and shaking me from the narrative. Partly, this was probably caused by my unfamiliarity with steampunk, but the fact that nothing in the flap text indicated this isn’t just a straight traditional fantasy setting might play a part too, as I wasn’t expecting the modern-ish things such as cigars, dirigibles and rifles.

At the start of the story the book seemed laced with genre tropes, such as, for example, the exceptional partnership between Sorcha and Merrick, the noble cursed prince and the Order militant to protect the realm, but Ballantine quickly twists these and makes them her own. Said partnership turns out to be special for an unexpected reason, the noble prince is noble, but his curse stays a curse and the Order militant isn’t exactly as clerical as one might expect from their titles! Ballantine succeeds in using tropes without letting them slip (too far) into cliché and I wasn’t bored with them at any point.

I enjoyed the characters. I loved Sorcha’s marital problems, or rather the way they are part of the story, but not a gimmick. While you might quibble at her eventual infidelity, and the way there wasn’t much soul-searching over it, at least not as far as we’re shown, in a way the circumstances could be considered extenuating; trapped in a loveless marriage, convinced she’s probably not going to make it through this last crisis of the realm, I can see why she just gets on with it, without sparing her husband more than a few moments of thought. I also liked how there were plenty of clues given for Nynnia’s true identity. I knew something was up with her as this is broadcast pretty clearly from the moment we meet her, I just couldn’t figure out what until the reveal and then all the pieces fell into place. The three-way bond, with Sorcha as the linchpin, was also a nice conceit and not only creates solutions, but tensions as well. A character that was most interesting as well, though we only see him as an active point of view for a few scenes, was the Rossin. I found the Beast fascinating, since he’s supposed to be evil, but there does seem to be some honour there.

I found the book got better and better by the chapter and I really liked the characters and the twists to the tale. Once I got into it, it was a quick read as well. In all, Geist is a fine read, with a solid story, which I enjoyed enough to make me enthusiastic to read more. Luckily, Spectyr, the second instalment of the Book of the Order is due out on June 28th and, to tide you over in the meantime, you can find several audio short stories set in the same world on the author’s website.

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