Philippa Ballantine – Spectyr

Though one of the most powerful Deacons, Sorcha Faris has a tarnished reputation to overcome. She and her partner, Deacon Merrick Chambers, find themselves chasing down rumors of geists, but long for a return to real action. So they jump at the chance to escort a delegation sent to negotiate the terms of the Emperor’s engagement. Their destination: the exotic city of Orinthal.

But a string of murders has Orinthal on edge, and Sorcha and Merrick are asked to investigate. Meanwhile, the Emperor’s sister has unwittingly unleashed a cruel and vengeful goddess, one who is bent on destroying her enemies, including the geistlord who resides inside the shapeshifting rival to the throne—Sorcha’s lover…

With Spectyr, the second book in her Books of the Order series, Philippa Ballantine returns us to the world of Arkaym. While I had some issues with the first book, Geist, I was looking forward to catching up with the main characters Sorcha, Merrick and Raed. And it was a joyful reunion indeed. As I was more aware of what to expect from the setting of the book this time round, a factor that gave me some trouble last time, it was far easier to settle into the book and just flow along with the story. We encounter Sorcha and Merrick at work three months after the ending of the last book. Three months in which they’ve been virtually benched by the Arch Deacon, who has only been sending them out on routine cases and mostly false alarms at that. It’s a great re-introduction to the both of them, as we quickly see their characters and abilities summed up in their tackling of their latest, real, case. From this action-filled start, the story doesn’t stop moving at a fair clip; we follow Sorcha and Merrick as they travel to city of Orinthal, while at the same time trying to figure out how to rescue Raed.

The city of Orinthal was fascinating; I loved the culture – seemingly a mix of Middle Eastern and Chinese elements – Ballantine created there. In Orinthal we don’t just discover more about the different cultures or Arkyam, we also learn more about Arkyam’s history and the reasons for the geist activity on the continent. Ballantine achieves this through having Merrick be whisked back into the past. The time he spent in the past and the things he discovers there are quite interesting, though  I found the way he got there rather strange at first; it’s only once we get to the end of the book it actually makes sense. Once it does, however, it ties into the other story lines and actually becomes quite clever and a good way to develop Merrick’s character further.

Merrick takes a larger part in the story overall this time around. Where Geist was mainly Sorcha’s story for me, Spectyr allows us to discover far more about Merrick and his past and get to know him better. His part of the story contains the most surprises, which makes it hard to discuss his development without spoilering those, so I’ll leave it at saying that Merrick faces his past and moves beyond the pain therein. What I can say more about is his bond with Sorcha. I loved the interaction between Sorcha and Merrick and the fact that they’re true partners now, after all they’ve been through in Geist. This time around they felt like equals and Merrick even takes the lead in some places, which was a pleasant development. In a similar vein we learn more about Raed and the Rossin’s history, meeting one of Raed’s father’s supporters who knew him as a young(er) man. She shows up to appraise Raed of his sister’s disappearance and this is what drives Raed throughout this book, the need to get his sister back. It was a good storyline, giving us more insight into Raed, his family and the Rossin, but at the same time I kept rolling my eyes at Raed’s sister as she was so self-centred and immature.

One thing I find quite enjoyable about this series – and something I’ve rarely seen before – is the fact that the majority of its main characters, with the exception of Merrick, is in their early to late thirties or older. This also leads to more grown up problems. This is best exemplified by Sorcha’s divorce from her husband Kolya. No simple unbinding of the marriage in a sentence or two here, instead Ballantine shows the difficulty of separating, of the regrets that come along with letting go and how painful it can be when one of the partners isn’t ready to let go. In Sorcha’s case it’s doubly so, as the partner not willing to let go is Kolya, the same one who didn’t seem to care about Sorcha until she said she wanted out. Throughout the story we see Sorcha becoming surer and surer of her decision, even if Kolya still doesn’t seem to get the message. I wonder whether and how this situation will be resolved in the next book, Wrayth.

There were some surprises in Spectyr, both pleasant and less so, especially for Merrick and Sorcha, but definitely for the reader too. Overall, this was a solid second novel in a series; it’s clearly part of a greater whole, but can be read on its own quite well. I really enjoyed my time spent with Spectyr and I’m looking forward to picking up Wrayth, which will be out from Ace by the end of summer. In addition, Ballantine announced she’ll be relaunching the podcast anthology for the Books of the Order in late July, the first series of which was highly enjoyable. If you’re curious about this universe, I recommend checking these audio short stories out as they give a good feel for what you can expect in the books.