Review: Geist, by Philippa Ballantine

March 2, 2012 in General Topics

Geist, by Philippa BallantneChurches were centerpieces of communities during most of the world’s more recent centuries. These icons of stone and iron were designed to project a sense of awe and obedience, and also remind supplicants that the forces of evil would be held in check. But how might such an organization look if dark influences were a constant, corporeal threat? Enter Philippa Ballantine’s Deacons in her debut novel, Geist.

The chief focal point in Geist is the Order, a kind of clergy tasked with defense against the book’s eponymous entities — undead spirits that would otherwise wreck civilization. Centered within an empire of hinted-at dubious origin, the Order deploys teams of “Sensitives” and “Actives”, roughly analogous to modern sniper teams, in that the Sensitives are the non-combatants skilled at marking targets for the Actives. In fact, there’s a bit of professional rivalry between the Sensitives and Actives, something Ballantine believably fleshes out over the book’s run.

Enter Sorcha Faris, she of the red hair and fiery temper, who leaves a critically wounded spouse and a dying marriage behind as she follows orders taking her to a distant village, where strange events are apparently transpiring. But of course no one knows the true nature of said strange events, because then we wouldn’t be having any fun. Ballantine explains the downed-transmitter element of the plot sufficiently, so it never feels too conveniently placed. More importantly, she introduces us to several characters destined to play a pivotal role in the tale.

There’s young Merrick: an academic, principled greenhorn thrust into service as Sorcha’s new Sensitive counterpart. Raed drops in early on, too — he’s a pretender to the throne, privateer, and freakin’ lyncanthrope. His crew of loyalists unfortunately serve as little more than a firepower reservoir through the course of the book, with the exception of his First Mate. Our intrepid band crosses paths with two other travelers, who seem insignificant gadflies — until they suddenly aren’t.

This confederation slips into mutual dependence a little quickly upon their initial, shared encounter (under dramatic circumstances), but it’s done so in the name of advancing the tale’s central story arc, so it’s hard for me to be too critical. I was glad to see Ballantine step up the pace, actually. She has an effective method of slowly drip-dripping background information through the course of the book, but sometimes — particularly in the earliest chapters — I felt like I was spending as much time in Sorcha’s head as I was in the main story. Some brevity, and less of Sorcha’s angst, would have been nice.

Nevertheless, once things do ramp up, they ramp up quickly, and the reader is rewarded with a steadily escalating series of events and fairly breathless combat sequences. At times the encounters with the Otherside (the book’s term for the afterlife) are written in such a way that it’s easy to get a grasp on what’s happening, and I found such sequences gripping. But there were a few battles where Ballantine’s prose felt a little opaque. I found it tough to keep up with the myriad runes the Deacons utilized, particularly since they have such exotic names. One wonders if it might have better served Ballantine’s purpose, at least for this reader, if she’d simply called this rune “Flame” and this rune “Cage”, or anything else. Often the author placed careful descriptive text alongside the usage of a rune so it was easy to infer what a given Deacon wished to use it for, but in instances where she didn’t, it was easy to feel a little distanced from the action, and all due solely to the book’s emphasis on its own esoteric richness.

Mrs. Ballantine did a great job, overall, with pacing — an impressive feat for a debut novel. I never felt like I was having to force myself along as I read this book, even all the wrap-up past the conclusion. She knows how to weave in romance effectively, too, and does it in good taste. Your teens can safely read this book with no problems, parents.

If I did have one minor complaint with the book’s narrative — and readers, this is pure subjectivity — it was the Deacons’ ability to wiggle their way out of the binds they were in. Over the course of the book, characters are placed in situations that go far beyond mortal danger, which is fine, but too often the storyline’s exit door from the problem is the sudden appearance of some hereto-unseen new power or ability. Merrick, in particular, is a fount for these one-shot parachutes, and his surprising new abilities are given only passing reflection by Sorcha after the fact, before the characters move on to the next situation that leaves them bruised, battered, and clinging to life. The most over-the-top example of the party’s propensity towards this stuff comes towards the book’s climax, where the author breathlessly describes a kind of melding that I’d say would have broken a number of rules in the characters’ world — had I thought those rules had been considered in regards to this one instant. Honestly, it felt like it was pulled out of nowhere.

One interesting side note is the Order comes across like a similar such power (the Imperial cult in Warhammer 40k) , but sans any form of belief in the ramifications of what they’re dealing with. This is not a good point, or a bad point. Rather, it’s a welcome bit of depth. Ballantine’s Deacons and their Order are simply too cool for school, brandishing a laissez faire attitude towards affairs, smoking, gambling, or just about any other personal activity — except the use of an Active’s gauntlets on civilians.

In fact, the Order doesn’t even represent a religion. It’s barely touched on in the book, but I found it fascinating. Is the author trying to make a point, one wonders? Would even a proven afterlife not be met with some apathy? Would an afterlife that can be used to literally power sails be reduced to the same standing a barrel of oil has in our modern world? Would the extraordinary then become mundane?

Man, that’s great stuff, and thought provoking.

I did indeed enjoy the book. Though not as developed in setting as some fantasy epics (and I personally am fine having a novel that doesn’t require the time commitment a “roach-smacker” would), Ballantine knows how to craft an enjoyable adventure, and she populates a surprising amount of world building into a smaller word count without losing sight of the central plot. Hardcore fantasy junkies might find more depth in one of those never-ending big-name series that populate the shelves, but if you’re looking for a fun romp off the beaten path, with plenty of action and romance throw in for good measure, call the Geistbusters.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars