This is a gorgeous multi-layered work with a cast of characters which includes the city of Merafi – as much a part of this as are Gracielis, failed Tarnaroqui assassin-priest now courtesan and spy; Thiercelin, husband of one of the Queen’s closest advisors and feeling like a spare part most of the time; Joyain, loyal soldier, out of his depth, just trying to keep it all together; Valdarrien, slain in a duel, but not yet gone.
And then there’s Merafi, a city of many contrasts, prosperous and rich with shipping, merchants, artisans and courtesans. The Queen and the high houses on the hill overlook the Low City with her toes in the river, dank, damp, dark and decaying, yet thriving despite it all – until the upstart Prince Kenan of the Lunedith, and Quenfrida, the Tranaroqui spy mistress conspire to remove the bonds of ancient magic allowing the river to rise, setting free the opaque ghosts and demons, invisible to the Merafiens, but plain as day to Gracielis. The river’s floodwaters bring pestilence and violence, and while loyal Joyain tries to do his duty, only Gracielis can end it – if he wants to. But Gracielis is in thrall to Quenfrida, while at the same time drawn to help Thiercelin, Thiercelin is driven by the apparent disregard of his wife, and haunted by the memory of his dead friend, Valdarrien. Valdarrien, by now more than a revenant spirit, grows even stronger and seeks a way back to find his lost love, Iareth. Iareth is in the retinue of the prince, but also playing a dangerous double game by spying on him for her father, the Lunedith spymaster.
Gracielis knows the final solution requires a sacrifice, but who? Thiercelin is horribly afraid that he might know.
Complicated? Yes, or say rather complex, because all this unfolds at an almost leisurely pace, drawing out the tension to almost unbearable pitch before we finally get resolution. It’s not a happy ever after ending, but it does resolve and resolves well, with some characters left standing, but not all. This is Kari Sperring’s debut novel, published by DAW in 2009. She’s a bona fide medieval historian with many academic books to her credit, and a self-confessed lover of the France of the Three Musketeers. Her writing is as elegant, as complex and as multi-layered as her characters and plot. Highly recommended.