Book Review: “Spectyr” by Philippa Ballantine

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


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.


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.


* 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.