The lieutenant's ghost sprawled on the daybed, occluding the brocade covers with misty distaste, eyes enviously on a crystal decanter. Drinking water, Gracielis raised his glass to it ... (p.17)
Gracielis de Varnaq, 'gigolo and spy', enjoys (endures) the constant company of a nameless ghost, legacy of a duel fought six years before in which Valdarrien d'Illandre, defending his sister's honour and his own, was slain. Now, reports Thiercelin (Valdarrien's closest friend in life, now married to Valdarrien's sister) there's another ghost on the scene: Valdarrien himself.
Gracielis, by blood and training, is more receptive than most to the magical, the unseen: he becomes aware that the city of Merafi -- a null space. Confluence of salt and fresh water. It's harder for ghosts to manifest here, there's no nourishment for them (p. 60) -- is under sorcerous attack, that something is rising beneath the surface of the river, bringing plague and death and nightmarish creatures to stalk the city streets. That 'something' is intimately entwined with Gracielis' past: with his failure to become undarios, assassin-priest, with his mentor-mistress Quenfrida, and with his flight from Tarnaroq to Merafi.
Thiercelin, assailed by the past -- memory laid hard hands on him and shook (p. 22) -- can only watch and wait as his beloved wife, Yvelliane (advisor to the ailing queen Firomelle) weaves intrigue and information into a complex political web, all the while becoming more distant from her husband. Unwillingly, he comes to believe Gracielis's account of the forces threatening Merafi, and to dread the night when two full moons shine above the city ...
Living with Ghosts is a richly sensuous novel, full of perfumes and sweet scents (as well as less pleasant odours), of face-paint and artifice and echoes through the fog, of reflected gazes and raindrops on glass. I'm reminded of Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, though that's a fantasy without magic and Living with Ghosts is replete with sorcery. The refinements of Merafian society -- duels, masquerades, hot chocolate at breakfast -- bring to mind the 'fantasy of manners' label coined by Don Keller, though the wit and intrigue are balanced by an intricate plot that echoes high fantasy tropes. And yes, if I knew The Three Musketeers better, I suspect I'd see more congruences with the work of Dumas.
The backstory unfolds slowly and teasingly (as soon as I'd finished the novel I wanted to read it again to appreciate the subtlety of those gradual revelations) and the prose is rich and dark. It's very much a character-driven novel, and what fascinated me most was the complex web of relationships: unrequited love (and lust), loyalty, betrayal, sacrifice willing and unwilling, bonds stronger than death.
It was folly, this compassion, in either of his professions. He was merchandise, no more. In him, attacks of conscience tasted only of sophistry. What right had one who lived through the sale of his body to any dominion over his soul? He could not afford the luxury of integrity. (p. 67)
Gracielis is flawed, and thinks himself a failure: but (despite his frequent, reflexive requests for forgiveness) he has sufficient self-knowledge and, well, grace, to seek redemption, to become whole; to cast aside his past, to learn to love and to be loved, and to resist bitterness.
Living with Ghosts is a novel about ghosts, reflections, unrequited love, river turning against city: about the past playing out in the present, and about discovering oneself and one's own flavour of freedom.