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Book Review: Wrayth by Philippa Ballantine

The following contains spoilers for Geist and Spectyr, the first two books in the series.

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Well, I finished reading Wrayth, the new novel by Philippa Ballantine.

I tried several different thematic ways to approach this review, but I had a lot of difficulty doing that. There’s a lot going on in this book, and I couldn’t really find any singular thing to tie it together because, the moment I thought I was on that path, things changed.

Let me explain.

EP360: Follow That Cathedral!

By Gareth Owens
Read by Pip Ballantine
Discuss on our forums.
Originally appeared in Immersion Book of Steampunk
All stories by Gareth Owens
All stories read by Pip Ballantine
Rated 13 and up

Follow that Cathedral!
By Gareth Owens

…and with that Pixie dived from the open door of the Zeppelin. The air around her suddenly becoming liquid, rushing over the smooth leather of her helmet and bringing tears to her eyes.

“Always some bloody thing!” she grinned into the gale, falling headlong towards the welcoming embraces of Mother Earth and Mother Russia below.

Siberian night enveloped her, storm filled frozen darkness, cloud shrouded full moon, and below, the steam powered lightning of The Iron Czar. A hissing, glowing, monster of a train, three storeys high, and even longer than the leviathan Fourteen Bags of Mischief hanging above.

Pixie saw the orange furnaces erupting sparks through the twin stacks, as if Hephaestus himself stoked on the imperial railways.

Book Review: Hunter and Fox by Philippa Ballantine

Some months ago, I spoke rather eloquently* on Geist and Spectyr, the first two Books of the Order by Philippa Ballantine. One of the things I praised was Ballantine’s ability to give the reader just enough information without making a fantasy novel into a doorstop.

Her latest tale, Hunter and Fox — the first of the Shifted World series — is similar in nature, in that a huge world is revealed in small chunks without turning the novel into a gigantic tome. Clocking in at 280 pages (according to my e-reader), it’s definitely not an intimidating read.

But I can’t say I put the book down feeling really satisfied, either.

Book Review: “Spectyr” by Philippa Ballantine

The following review contains spoilers for Geist, to which Spectyr is a sequel.

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At the end of Philippa Ballantine’s Geist, Deacons Sorcha and Merrick, along with the aid of Raed the Young Pretender*, vanquished the geistlord Murashev (an exceedingly evil being), who had been brought into their world by the Arch Abbott — the leader of their Order. Raed escaped from an Imperial prison and returned to his pirate ship, Dominion, and Sorcha and Merrick returned to the Mother Abbey to help put back together the Order they serve.

To get to that point, Sorcha and Merrick joined up as partners, journeyed across many miles to a faraway outpost of the Empire, fought members of the Order turned to evil as well as several creatures from the Otherside — the Order exists to protect the Empire from these beings — flew on airships, fell in love, had sex… basically, everything that’s done in a fantasy/buddy-cop/hero’s-journey story of 300 or so pages.

In Spectyr, they do most of those things all over again.

Spectyr begins a few weeks after the end of Geist, with Sorcha Faris and Merrick Chambers being dispatched to rid the Imperial capital of Vermillion of various small-time geists, ghasts, shades, and spectyrs. This rankles them both, and what rankles Sorcha even more is that her husband, Kolya — a marriage in name only, at this point — is, for some reason, fighting to keep Sorcha around the Mother Abbey instead of letting her out into the world to fight the bigger creatures she’s capable of destroying.

Eventually, our Deacons are tasked with protecting an ambassador to the far-off desert land of Chioma. One of the daughters of the Prince of Chioma is to be wedded to the Emperor, and the ambassador is headed there to negotiate something or other**. But once they arrive in Chioma, Sorcha and Merrick uncover a series of murders as well as evidence that a very powerful geistlord — the ancestral enemy of the Rossin — has decided that now is the time to make a comeback.

As I said in my review of Geist, Ballantine’s writing is well-paced, not overly laden with exposition (a major flaw in several fantasy novels I’ve read), and tends to leave tropes for readers to trip over.

Cases in point:

  • Buddy cops relegated to crappy tasks because they’re so powerful no one knows what to do with them.
  • Kick-ass sibling of the Emperor who happens to be a True Believer in a religion to which no one gives credence***.
  • A long journey via airship.
  • A far-off land where the government is semi-autonomous from the Empire, and the Order are as well.
  • Good guys falling into a murder investigation.
  • Main characters get separated.
  • Long-lost relatives.
  • Treachery from out of nowhere.

It’s that last one that really bugged me. At least in Geist I had a fairly good idea who the most evil member of the Order was going to be, but in Spectyr there’s a heel turn that I felt had no real support within the story. It’s like, “oh, hey, here’s someone we haven’t seen in a while. Let’s have him/her be evil now.” I at least need some foreshadowing for that to be effective, and I got none. It would be like if, just before they face Riddler and Two-Face in Batman Forever, Robin suddenly sucker-punches Batman, steals the Bat-boat, and leaves Batman there to get his ass kicked.

There’s also a geist-powered journey to the past for one of the Deacons that provides an info-dump without sounding like one — Ballantine is particularly good at avoiding info-dumps, which is greatly appreciated — while also giving more information about the Native Order (the one that came before the one Merrick and Sorcha are in). This does lead to a fair bit of melodramatic behavior by the other (I’m being vague to avoid spoilers), and I felt somewhat irked because said behavior was out-of-character for the Deacon who didn’t go to the past.

My biggest problem with Spectyr, though, was that, with the exception of the bad guys having different names and the locales being deserts instead of mountains, I could swear I read the same story in Geist. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book, but I wanted something more. Something newer. And I really didn’t get it.

Fortunately, Ballantine is a good enough writer**** that it doesn’t matter that she’s used lots of well-known fantasy tropes. The characters are well-rounded and interesting; the action is on par with other fantasy novels (sometimes better); the worldbuilding is complete and comprehensible without requiring massive info-dumps; and the Boss Fight, if a little too much “stuff happens to our hero” than “our hero kicks the Final Boss’s ass”, has an ending that directly leads into the next novel — which Ballantine is writing right now. I’m truly curious to see what’s going to happen at the start of Wrayth, and how our heroes are going to get out of the jam the Boss Fight put them in.

I’d say the book gets really good toward the last 25 percent (similar to what I felt with Geist): we’ve got all the information we need, the pieces are in place, and if one of the Deacons has made some decisions that weren’t the strongest in terms of storytelling, what s/he does at the end of that plot thread is cool enough to make up for it.

I also want to note for the record that, in a follow-up to some of my concerns voiced in my Geist review, Sorcha does not take on any more of Anita Blake’s features, and she does not have a power-of-the week. In fact, the story is written in such a way that it’s impossible for her to level up any further. And, anyway, the story’s not about Sorcha becoming more powerful or learning new battle techniques. Geist pretty much established that Sorcha is as powerful and talented as you can be, and I think that was an excellent choice on Ballantine’s part. It deftly sidesteps the whole training montage that many writers feel they have to include to justify their main character’s badassery, and I respect that storytelling choice. (However, there is a moment in Spectyr that really underlines why every Active, like Sorcha, absolutely must have a Sensitive, like Merrick, in order to function at his or her full potential.)

Overall, I’ll say this: if you loved Geist, you’ll love Spectyr for the same reasons. If you liked Geist, you’ll probably like Spectyr, although you’ll also probably see the same issues with it than I did. Still, Ballantine has created a rich world with a lot of stories to be told, and there’ll be at least two more (she’s contracted to write a fourth Order book after Wrayth). If you like fast-paced fantasy evocative of what you read in the 90s, then you’ll enjoy Spectyr.

And, as I said in my Geist review, that’s exactly the kind of book I like.

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Special thanks to Ace, the novel’s publisher, for providing a review copy.

Note to Parents: Spectyr is a bit more graphic than Geist. If it was a film, I would rate it a “soft R” (with the exception of the sex scene in the first third). It contains enough violence to warrant that. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.

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* To the throne. The Emperor’s family ousted the Rossin family, to which Raed belongs, and now Raed is persona non grata throughout the Empire.

** I didn’t find it of that much import to the story, so I didn’t remember it. It didn’t affect my enjoyment of the tale.

*** After you read the scenes in the beginning with Zofiya, tell me you weren’t thinking of Alia in the… third?… Dune novel. Or at the very least the scene where she goes all ninja-crazy on the practice robot in the Sci-Fi Channel adaptation Children of Dune.

**** As a writer and a former English teacher, I know there’s nothing technically wrong with it, but Ballantine has a habit of writing sentences with long dependent clauses followed by short action clauses. For example: As she sipped her tea and nibbled a scone while thinking about what to do this Sunday morning, Gina felt a chill. Completely legal from a grammatical perspective, but the author does it enough that I noticed it.

Book Review: “Geist” by Philippa Ballantine

The term “doorstop novel” applies to any book that is so large you could use it as a doorstop as well as reading material. They’re enormous, take forever to read, and often leave readers with more a sense of accomplishment (“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing”) than satisfaction*. In books like that, the author feels the need to explain every single detail, every relationship, every physical feature, every magic spell… everything.

Of course, you can go in the other direction, and explain too little. Books like that have their own problems.

But in Geist, by Philippa Ballantine, I think there’s just the right balance of explanation and action. Think late-90s genre novels — Mercedes Lackey, Melissa Scott, and their ilk. That’s the feeling I got while reading, at any rate, and for me, that’s a good thing.

In Geist, Deacons Sorcha Faris and Merrick Chambers — field agents of a religious order dedicated to protecting people from geists (creatures from the Otherside) — are sent to a faraway outpost to find out what’s causing geist attacks on the townspeople. When they get there, they find there’s — naturally — more to it than meets the eye, and their unexpectedly-strong Bond leads them to reveal a conspiracy that could destroy the home of the Order itself.

Geist is the first book I’ve read in dead-tree form in a while, and it was refreshing to actually turn pages for once. And the book is definitely a page-turner — after a slow beginning, the story moves along at a fair clip. It really heats up at the end, with a lot happening in a relatively-small number of pages. In that way, it really does follow the slow-build-to-frenetic-climax of many of the “early” fantasy novels I read. I definitely enjoyed the reading.

But that’s not to say the book is without its… well, I don’t want to call them flaws, because they’re really not, so I’m going to call them points of discussion instead.

Let’s start with the main characters — though they are unique in their own way, I felt as though they were a little too slavish to the Big Book of Fantasy Tropes. Sorcha, the main character, is a cross between Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, Hannibal Smith from The A-Team, and Anita Blake from the novels by Laurell K. Hamilton. She kicks ass, takes crap from no one, smokes cigars, and has a nagging internal voice that, sometimes, needs to shut up and let the story progress.

Now, before you worry that Sorcha’s going to start sleeping with everything that moves (and changes shape), or gaining a new power every week, I will clarify my Anita Blake comment and say that what I saw in Sorcha was more “early Anita”. But I also think that the author is so connected to her audience via social networks and conventions that, if she started doing power-of-the-week books or making Sorcha into a Mary Sue, the audience would be able to talk her down. Although if Sorcha starts saying “alright” or “me, either” (both sic), you might want to start to worry**.

The rest of the cast includes Sorcha’s partner, a young, just-minted deacon named Merrick Chambers, and he is powerful, humble, unafraid of Sorcha’s prickliness, and prone to a white knight complex. And then there’s Raed Rossin, Pretender to the throne of Vermillion, who is everything a prince-turned-pirate-captain should be… and a werelion.

Oh, and if anyone reading the book didn’t look at Nynnia and say “well, now, her appearance certainly is significant and convenient,” then they weren’t reading very carefully. Another thing right out of the 90s, right there with the long journey, the remote outpost, the three-good-guys-against-the-other-good-guys, the secret passageways, and the evil plot that felt a little too “stock” to me.

There’s also sex — because, hey, it’s Philippa Ballantine, and if you don’t know she runs a very successful erotica podcast, you’ll find out when you get to that chapter that she’s great at writing sex. That too felt like the sex scenes of 90s genre novels — and given that I was in my late teens and early 20s around that time, you can imagine that I enjoyed the nostalgia it brought on.

Without spoiling the ending, I will say that I felt like too much happened too quickly, and I had issues with the Boss Fight. But outside of that, the rest of the issues I mentioned above, I can pretty much ignore. See, I’m not reading this book because I want it to be the next great Kiwi*** novel. I’m reading it because I think it’ll be an enjoyable book. And it is. It has action, humor, sex, and intrigue; the characters are fully-developed and well-rounded****, and they change as the book progresses. The world is built enough for me to know what’s going on and to understand the story without being overwritten, and the same with the magic system.

In short, Geist combines the best of what I like in 1990s fantasy fiction with the scope of a doorstop novel… and then pares out all the extraneous crap that makes a fantasy novel into a doorstop. What’s left is 300 pages that make up an enjoyable book to read, even if it’s got a few too many tropes that we’ve all read before.

And if you really, really need to keep a door open, I guess you could wedge it in there. But then Sorcha might call up pyet and burn your door to ash, so… you know… your choice.

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Special thanks to Ace, the novel’s publisher, for providing a review copy.

Note to Parents: With the exception of one scene of semi-explicit sex, nothing in the novel should be unpalatable to anyone who can watch a PG-13 action film and not have nightmares. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.

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* Neal Stephenson excepted. And I know some people really like Wheel of Time but I never got into it.

** As you can see, I have issues with the Anita Blake novels. I’m reading Hit List right now, and when I do the review of that, you’ll see exactly why I’ve made some of these points.

*** Though she now lives in the U.S., Ballantine is from New Zealand.

**** Seriously, Sorcha’s hair being red/copper is mentioned so often that, if this was a movie, it would get a mention in the ending credits.