In a world lost somewhere between fairy tales and reality, life has struggled to survive. What were once great cities are now ruins, their powers and knowledge lost save for the small bits and pieces gathered by the witches and rangers who use their ancient “magics” to heal or to harm. Gerry is coming of age in this world, dependent of the alpha “Mother” who is on the edge of growing up. He’s almost ready to be an alpha himself, to gather his own dependents and start his own life. But, for now, it’s Gerry and Mother and his fellow dependent, Conn.
Raised by the infamous Witch, the child called Ghost is not her dependent, nor her apprentice. He’s more of a pet, and a nuisance and a welcome companion against loneliness. When Gerry, injured trying to protect Conn from one of the fearsome sinds, is brought to the Witch for healing, Ghost is drawn to the handsome, older man. He’s normally shy around other people — his visions showing him glimpses of their true selves and their possible futures — but Gerry is different, somehow. When the handsome hunter awakens, it’s clear he returns the interest.
In the darkness of the cabin they speak foolish words of love and longing, and when Gerry is healed enough to return to his home, he leaves with promises to return for Ghost. Ghost, feeling lonely for the first time, follows Gerry, but finds himself captured by a rogue ranger who sees an opportunity in the beautiful young man. Ghost will fetch him a fine fortune in the slave markets. All Ghost can do is hope that Gerry will somehow find him, lost in the ancient ruins, and save him before it’s too late.
This short story is more of an introduction to a world and to Ghost and Gerry than it is a story in its own regard. It sets up the post-apocalyptic setting, introduces the idea of Witches, who are feared and powerful female healers who have access to the lost technology, and Rangers, who are craven men who go through the ruins of fallen cities to find lost technology and either sell it to the Witches or use it themselves. It’s a world where a strong individual can call themselves an Alpha and bring in dependents to protect and care for.
There’s quite a bit of world building in this little story, with hints at a society powerful enough to have a Star Trek-like tricorder that can heal broken bones, muscle, and skin with a few passes and yet fell into a semi-medieval/dark ages time that it’s still not climbed out of. It must have been so deeply scarring since the recovering society — how much of a society there is left is unclear, since we only see six people — avoids going into the ruins of the nearby cities and prefers to make little villages.
The characters, though, left me cold. Ghost was shy, Gerry was a nice guy, and their relationship seemed to be based on two very simple approaches. For Ghost, Gerry was the first handsome young man he’d seen and he was pretty taken by a handsome face, athletic body, and someone who paid him a flattering bit of attention. But there wasn’t much more to Ghost than what you see on the surface. He’s pretty, with white hair and a “witch mark” of a peridot spiral on his forehead. I couldn’t get a sense of who he might be underneath it all, because there was nothing but surface to him.
Gerry was raised by “Mother,” a man who took him in and trained him and eventually bought him a younger brother. Gerry had no interest in sleeping with Mother, though whether he did or not when he was younger is left vague. We know that Gerry likes to hunt and is good at it, despises his younger adopted-brother, even though he sleeps with him — remember, they aren’t blood relatives and don’t consider each other brothers; that word isn’t known to them anymore — and feels he’s ready to be an adult. Gerry isn’t terrible. He, like Ghost, is just very limited in scope and personality.
Mother and Conn have a difficult relationship, and a slightly unsettling one. I’m not really sure how old Conn is — younger than Gerry by five or six years, and Gerry himself is probably around 19-21 in this story — and he has been sleeping with Mother for some time. Conn is clingy, selfish, and immature, but as he realizes his actions have consequences and that others can be hurt by the things he says and does, Conn takes a very large step towards growing up. He’s the only character in this story to have an actual arc and show development. Neither Mother nor the Witch have anything beyond stock personality. He’s a grown up man, she’s a mysterious woman. Even the ranger feels slightly more like a person than they do.
This story left me feeling rather flat, even though the world building is almost there, and the plot — while predictable — isn’t badly done and only requires Ghost to be somewhat naive rather than completely brainless. I think it’s the overall vagueness that didn’t work for me. There’s nothing there to really grab on to. The setting is one we’ve seen before, and while the intimacy of a limited caste can help with the immersion, I didn’t feel like there was enough world for there to be any immersion. The stock characters and obligatory romance offered nothing new or interesting. For all that this is story is obstinately about Ghost and Gerry, I was left feeling like this was really Conn’s story, of having to grow up and step up to take responsibility for himself and what he’s done.
I would have thought that this is an attempt to reboot a series and bring new readers to the author’s world as there is another Ghost book out there (published a few years ago), but the epilogue makes it clear that this story has come to an end. I wish I felt more positively towards this book since the writing wasn’t bad and the pacing was good, but there just wasn’t enough of a story and I while I didn’t dislike the book, I was left feeling indifferent when it ended.