In our Vespertine book review, we answer the age-old question: What does a buddy comedy about a nun and the demonic spirit possessing her look like?
Margaret Rogerson’s third novel takes us to Loraille, where the spirits of the dead are numerous and varied. Ever since the Sorrow, a magical ritual performed centuries ago that shattered the gates of death, the spirits of people not laid to rest properly can walk the earth—and cause harm or devastation. First Order shades, who died innocent deaths, are relatively harmless. Up the hierarchy through the Second, Third and Fourth Orders, those who died from the forces of nature or illness or violence, spirits become more powerful and able to hurt the living.
The Clerisy, Loraille’s religious order, is led by nuns and priests who can utilize the power of spirits trapped within Saints’ relics. Convents train young girls to combat and exorcize spirits; Artemisia is a novice hoping to be a Gray Sister who helps spirits pass on peacefully. She is much happier to deal with the dead, as she struggles with the living who find her creepy and awkward.
Artemisia’s hopes for a quiet future are upturned when her home convent of Naimes is attacked by possessed soldiers, and in a moment of desperation she wields Saint Eugenia’s relic—which houses a revenant.
It takes a special kind of book to make the reader invested in a character that is nameless, bodiless, and genderless. Vespertine is such a book. The revenant is a Fifth Order spirit, one of the rare and incredibly powerful spirits capable of leveling cities and devouring thousands of souls. I am happy to admit in this Vespertine book review that it is also an absolute delight, snarky and chatty after centuries trapped in the relic.
Although possessing Artemisia is the key to its freedom, the revenant is by turns livid and bemused to be saddled with an untrained novice for a host. Their banter is funny and sharp, and as they slowly begin to bond with each other despite mistrust, the relationship between Artemisia and the revenant becomes the emotional core of the book.
Artemisia and the revenant begrudgingly agree to work together, but they have little room for error. On their tail is Leander—a confessor who is convinced that Artemisia is too inexperienced to control the revenant, and is hellbent on catching them and imprisoning the revenant in its relic again. Or could he possibly be involved in something more nefarious, like the heretical Old Magic wreaking havoc in the countryside, causing mass possession?
Only people born Sighted can see the shades and other spirits, but that gift also makes them vulnerable to possession. Artemisia knows this better than most—as a child she was possessed by an ashgrim, and her confused and terrified family locked her away. Her early suffering makes it difficult for Artemisia to express emotion and relate to other people, or even to respond to her body’s own needs for food and sleep. In a particularly astute description of trauma, Artemisia wonders if that first possession left a hollowed-out place inside of her that makes it easier for other spirits to come in.
In light of her fear of being so vulnerable, it is particularly interesting that the revenant’s presence gives Artemisia power to protect herself and others. It is the revenant who reminds her to eat and rest when she forgets how to care for herself. And in the revenant’s fear of being alone and trapped inside the relic, Artemisia finds a glimmer of understanding for her own past.
As rumors of her abilities spread, “Artemisia of Naimes” becomes a modern Saint in the eyes of the common folk, worshiped as a Vespertine, the wielder of a high relic. Much to the real Artemisia’s chagrin. Her new reputation forces her to rely on other people, forge new friendships, and shoulder the burden of expectation.
I want to take a moment out of this Vespertine book review to add that the novel poses a few questions that go unanswered because they are perhaps unanswerable. If your god requires you to sacrifice yourself, and you do so willingly, is it truly free will? If your god moves saints and nuns and soldiers around like game pieces on a board, then who is her opponent? If two people hold firm convictions that they know the truth, but both cannot be right, how do they ever know they aren’t wrong? It seems fitting that the book is mostly open-ended, leaving room for even more questions.
Vespertine is an atmospheric read, gloomy with incense smoke and the revenant’s ghostly fire, illuminated with stained glass and saints’ iconography. If you think the medieval French Catholic church would’ve been much more interesting with loads of ghost-busting and a matriarchal deity, this is absolutely the book for you. There are sweeping action scenes; if you, like me, found the Arwen horseback chase sequence from The Fellowship of the Ring formative, you will enjoy the epic battles.
There are also plenty of intimate moments. Artemisia and the revenant often inhabit their own little world, and while the book does not have an explicit romance, I do believe there is something decidedly romantic about learning to trust again, about rebuilding connection after trauma, and about choosing to bring others out of their dark places and into the light.
‘Vespertine’ was released September 28, 2021
This article was written by Subjectify contributor Megan Lank. Look for more recommendations on our books page.