This is the third in the series and if you have missed reading the two previous books, Of Tangible Ghosts and The Ghost of the Revelator which Tor have conveniently put together in a single duology called, The Ghosts of Columbia – then I strongly recommend that you put this book on one side until you’ve read the previous offerings. If you are a fan of well constructed alternate histories and enjoy Modesitt’s intricate layering of daily detail, then this is a treat not to be missed. Set in an alternative world in which ghosts are real, the United States never came into existence and Russia is still ruled by the Romanovs, this book continues the adventures of semi-retired spy, Dr. Johan Eschbach.
His lovely wife, Llysette du Boise, a refugee from the burning remains of France and a world-famous vocalist, has been invited to provide a command performance for the Russian Imperial household. Johan accompanies her, allowing him to work on the oil concession in Russian Alaska that Columbia so desperately needs and do some spying on the side. Johan’s espionage is carried out against the backdrop of the famous white nights of St. Petersburg, and nearly Arctic midsummer when the sun barely dips below the horizon and the sky seems to dissolve in ivory light. But even the oil shortage will fade to insignificance when Johan discovers what new weapons technology the Russians are developing, a threat even more fearsome than the atomic bombs of Austro-Hungary.
This is a fascinating premise, because when someone dies a violent death and registers what is happening to them, they leave behind a ghost. So suddenly all the great battles that litters our history mostly don’t occur, including WW’s I and II – because having thousands of disturbed ghosts will make large areas uninhabitable. Unfortunately, it doesn’t completely prevent tyrants and Ferdinand of the Austrian Empire is a case in point. The Founding Fathers never made it to America, which is split up into a series of smaller states and Columbia, where Johan and Llysette live, was colonised by the Dutch. Modesitt’s world building is a delight and – unlike most series – I personally think the middle book is the strongest.
This Russian adventure is an enjoyable, engrossing read. I loved meeting up again with Johan, who is an interesting protagonist as a university professor. However, this time around I do have a couple of niggles. Modesitt carefully builds the tension by giving us all the small details of Johan’s life, which works very well. But when there is a sudden explosion of violence, I find it difficult to equate Johan’s completely casual approach to killing several people in quick succession to the man who quivers when his wife raises an eyebrow and snaps. It also disturbs me that, given we have a ringside seat into Johan’s first person point of view – he only once alludes to his dead wife and child, wincing when someone else brings them up. He is depicted as a thoughtful, sensitive person, desperate to keep Llysette safe and I find his absence of any remembrance of his former family at odds with the rest of his character.
These quibbles aside – and yes, I have marked the book down accordingly – I still found this book a really enjoyable read and if you haven’t yet gotten around to catching up with this excellent series, I would urge you to do so.