Wrayth by Philippa Ballantine
Reading Wrayth by Philippa Ballantine (Ace, 2012) A Books of the Order 3, sees me breaking another of my house rules. I usually reject the chance to read any book in the middle of a series. My strong preference is to start at the beginning. That way, the reader can watch the plot develop and, assuming the characters are sufficiently interesting, follow them on their journey to the end. In this case, I’m coming in at book three with book four already announced for next year. My only defence is that, so far, my reading of Philippa Ballantine has produced enjoyment so. . . Anyway, this fantasy all seems to have started in Geist and continued in Spectyr, the two titles giving away the central conceit. Here we have a world in which the spirits of the undead can physically pass through the barrier separating the Otherside — not surprisingly supposed to protect the living — and cause not a little death and destruction. This requires the world to establish a defensive force calling itself the Order of the Eye and Fist — from the name you will understand this is not a religious organisation. There are two branches to the order. The Sensitives identify the incoming nasties and the Actives kill them (which is a neat trick given their undead status). Our heroine is Sorcha Faris. She’s an enigma with a broken past no-one can read and a future no-one wants to tell her about. The other key characters are Merrick Chambers, her partner, and Raed Syndar Rossin, the pretender to the throne. In this book, we’re also concerned with Zofiya, the Emperor’s sister.
What seems slightly odd about this set-up is that, although the defensive force uses words like “deacon” and “abbey”, there doesn’t seem to be an organised religion. In all real-world cultures there’s no evidence of any existence after death, but this world comes with clear proof of “life” after death. No need for faith! This subverts the usual systems based on the worship of ancestors. In Eastern religions, the living can burn paper money to buy goodies for those who went into the afterlife before them and hope this will buy them protection for their interests on Earth. In Western systems, God became human so that, after death, he could be an ancestor for all to worship. However, this is all hypothetical — a quid pro quo without any evidence you will see a return on the real money you spent on the paper replicas of Ferraris to be burned or for the prayers you offer up. If we stay with the Eastern models for evaluating these books, I suppose, we would tend not to respect our grandfather if his geist had just returned from the Otherside and was proposing to eat one of us as a light snack before lunch.
As is always the way when holding positions in society means acquiring status and power, the Order has proved corruptible. Some members have seen the geists as the means to acquire real-world power, looking to partner with the spirits rather than destroy them. They are the Order of the Circle of Stars, the old Native Order. Ah well, some things never change. Putting the usual temptations behind us for the moment, this book starts off with Sorcha trapped by her body which refuses to move. This is not a little frustrating because her mind works perfectly. If there’s an upside to this situation, it’s that the body is invulnerable. No assassins or other people bent on mischief can do her harm. Magic can be very convenient when you’re lying flat on your back defenceless. To start us off, people kidnap Sorcha, Merrick is tasked with investigating one of the newly arrived nobles, and Raed continues his problems with his in-house geistlord while investigating the castle of the Shin and the Wrayth. Why take Sorcha? Because she can lead “them” to Raed. Put her in an airship and she can act like a compass. So how will Merrick react to this enforced separation? The young man is no longer so callow. He should strike out on his own to discover why his righteous Order seems so alarmed. But at an early stage he runs into one of the corrupted Order. This represents a real danger and, according to the oath he swore, he’s supposed to deal with that rather than chase after his kidnapped parter. Ah such are the dilemmas authors come up with for their characters. And once the Shin notice Raed is crawling around the tunnels inside their castle, they are not a little upset. Or they are rather delighted because they are running a breeding program and it would be good to see what would come out of his genes. It’s fortuitous the cavalry is flying on its way to rescue him (and his sister).
There’s a slightly slow start as you might expect with the heroine unable to move or speak, and Merrick quickly following her into inactivity as he’s arrested and thrown into an underground jail. But, once the scene is set, we get into some nicely constructed action sequences. There’s a natural flair for adventure on display here. In the best possible sense of the word, the writing is graphic, i.e. you can picture the scene as a character is chased or has to fight to stay free. There’s also a pleasing revelation about Sorcha’s backstory which is elegantly set up as Raed goes exploring. This leaves me with the sense that Wrayth is good but not outstanding. I’m relieved there’s a darker edge to the fantasy. Too often those who write fantasy make their worlds not too unpleasant places in which to live. Philippa Ballantine has this population lined up as food, as hosts in forced breeding programmes, and so on. But some individual aspects of the plot are less than satisfactory. Raed’s transformations, for example, parallel the Hulk (except this guy loses all his clothing) without any hint of where the extra body mass comes from or, in another form, goes to. I live with the idea of werewolves because, for the most part, what we get is a redistribution of the original body’s mass plus hair. I suppose this geistlord is pulling additional matter from, or dumping surplus matter into, the Otherside. Perhaps the explanation is in an earlier book and that points clearly to the problem. I might have enjoyed it more if I had read the first two. I’m coming in as major revelations are being made and the Empire is about to fall. Missing the build-up devalues the experience.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.