Thiercelin begins seeing his best friend Valdarrien again, six years after he was killed in a duel. Thiercelin is a sensible man, and like all sensible men of his time does not believe in ghosts. Nevertheless, the apparition seems so real that he is forced to take it seriously. He seeks counsel from Gracielis, a man who was once his wife's lover but is now a courtesan and double (triple? quadruple?) agent. Gracielis is Tarnaroqui, a people rumored to have traces of fey blood, and unlike Thiercelin, he has made a lifetime study of the supernatural. But, bound as he is to his mentor, the perfidious Quenfrida, Gracielis refuses to help Theircelin. Slowly, it becomes clear that Valdarrien's ghost is just one part of a rising tide of magic that threatens to break the rational city of Merafi. Gracielis reconciled himself to the fact that he does not have the powerful will needed to be a great magician long ago. But when Merafi and his friends and lovers are threatened, he knows he has to do something. And so against his nature, against his nation, against his training, Gracielis strives to remake the bindings keeping Merafi safe.
This is not a typical fantasy novel, no matter the silly goffick cover art. The plot doesn't follow a single ordinary arc, but meanders through witty conversations and characters' internal ruminations, while in the background there is the rising tension and horror of Merafi's coming downfall. The magic surges into a deadly crescendo near the end, but for much of the book it is only hinted at. Sperring's magic is illusive and nightmarish, with rules that hold together but are never fully explained.
There's something of Guy Gavriel Kay to the characters, in the way they move through the Merafian court. Gracielis was my favorite--full of wasted potential, perpetually polite, secretly despairing. I really enjoyed the world building, as well--Merafi is like seventeenth/eighteenth century France, but without sexism (Thiercelin is the decorative lazy husband to the serious-minded, indispensible Yvelliane, who is First Councillor, a nice role reversal) or heterosexism (various characters have lovers of either gender, and no one thinks about it in the least). Sperring knows how her society works, down to the last detail.
The book takes a while to get going, but the leisurely pace of the beginning is necessary to give the reader time to assimilate all the tangled relationships between characters. I do think there were a few too many view point characters: Joyain and Miraude each serve to expand the world a bit, but their plots could easily have been shifted to other characters. Seeing through the eyes of Thiercelin and Joyain and Miraude and Iareth and Yvelliane and Gracielis and even, at times, Kenan and Quenfrida was just too much. Plus occasional third person omniscient! Too many viewpoints. Joyain is, additionally, the one character who annoyed me. Even after repeated visitations by ghosts, nearly getting killed by supernatural mists that sliced at his flesh, seeing his friend be torn apart yet speak through ruined jaws, repeated warnings by other characters--he STILL declines to believe in magic, and indeed spreads the magical plague throughout Merafi because he wanders around getting drunk instead of enforcing the quarantine, like everyone told him to. He was so self-pitying and dumb I could hardly bear it.
Trigger warning: There's a suicide attempt on page 209 that's up there with reading Sylvia Plath. If depressed, I really do recommend having something else to read or someone to talk to at hand when you get to that part, just in case.