Goth Craft – Raven Digitalis

Goth Craft
Raven Digitalis
Llewellyn Publications, September 2007
316 pages

I was lucky enough to get to preview a galley copy of Raven Digitalis’ first book, Goth Craft, which is due out this coming September. Now, this is one of those books that had the potential to be either really good, or abysmal. Fortunately, Raven managed to stick to the former, avoiding a trainwreck of trendiness and black-dyed fluff.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Goth subculture beyond a few outward trappings, this book will give you a solid introduction to the whys, hows, and manifestations of what it is to be Goth. However, like the introductory material on witchcraft that he presents, Raven manages to avoid dogma and snarkiness. This will make Goth Craft a particularly good guide for teens and early twenty-somethings who are just getting into both the Goth subculture and witchcraft, though people who are more established in one community or the other shouldn’t turn away, either.

What I really liked about this book was the fact that it doesn’t shy away from potentially controversial material. The ritual use of drugs, sex (vanilla and otherwise) and gender issues are some of the topics that are covered in a respectful, intelligent manner. Raven also includes a good collection of rituals and spells aimed at the appreciation of the darker end of the spectrum of life, and provides some refreshing ideas to work with. He also shows the magic in “everyday” elements of Gothic culture, including conscious application of makeup and clothing, and the use of dance for reaching altered states of consciousness.

I would consider Goth Craft to be primarily 101 level material, but it’s on the higher end of 101–there are explanations of common pagan symbols and correspondences filtered through a Gothic worldview, but there’s also a good collection of further resources. And I learned quite a bit about the Gothic subculture that I hadn’t known before. So while the target audience seems to be younger folks in the Goth community who are interested in witchcraft, I suggest giving this book a chance if you’re interested in a darker approach to magic that is well beyond the ooga-booga spookiness and sensationalism that some prior texts have fallen prey to.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Dancing With Dragons – D.J. Conway – May BBBR

Dancing With Dragons
D.J. Conway
Llewellyn, 2003
296 pages

I finally got around to reading this one, which just happened to be on the clearance rack. I knew it was pretty popular, though I didn’t realize it was in its thirteenth printing by 2003. I’d imagine there’ve been more since then.

I can see why the book has been so popular–for one thing, it was pretty much the first of its kind. Many pagans think dragons are the best thing since sliced bread, and so a book on dragon magic would have a pretty wide appeal. I’ve only seen one other book of its type, Torrence’s Sea, Land Sky: A Dragon Magick Grimoire which is on my wish list which I have reviewed as of 10 July, 2007.

So what was the first book on dragon magic like? Rather disappointing. I’ve generally disliked Conway’s works because she has a tendency to recycle the basic Wicca 101 material and plug in different cultural trappings; for example, her “Celtic Magic” and “Norse Magic” were practically the same book, only with different sets of deities and spirits. This book isn’t much different.

There’s a bunch of information on the history and mythology of dragons (without any sort of internal citations to show where she got specific bits of information). It seems pretty solid, and she has a good variety of cultures. However, it’s nothing you couldn’t find in any basic book of dragon mythology, such as The Book of the Dragon by Allen and Griffiths. Conway also indulges in a little more “Christians are evil!!!” sentiment than I’m comfortable with (as if no other group or religion had dragons as a symbol for dangerous things).

As for the magic itself, it’s basically Wicca 101 mixed with draconic imagery and a lot of Conway’s own UPG about her own dragon spirits. There are also pages upon pages of correspondences, information on basic Wiccan altar tools,and other 101 information that you could find in any book about Wicca, which makes me think that there was a serious need of filler. I really question the wisdom of some of her own material about dragons; for example, in the basic dragon ritual (p. 118 et. al) she instructs the reader to invoke Fafnir as the dragon of the south. I can’t find any evidence for the other three directional dragons, names Grael, Sairys and Naelyan. Is this UPG? She also talks about dragons as if anyone could work with them, and it’s just a matter of being polite to them.

The chapters on the different types of dragon read somewhat like a D&D manual, and she classifies dragons by their elemental properties regardless of what culture they come from. This just continues a neopagan trend that really annoys me, trying to wrap the entire world up in a neat elemental package. IMO, if you’re going to work with dragons deal with them as individuals according to the culture they come from, not whatever element they remind you of.

Basically, if you’re new to Wicca and you like dragons, you’ll probably like this book. Just don’t make it the do-all and end-all of your research on either topic. As per usual, there’s a lot of questionable material. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen on the internet most of the material available on dragon magic stems from this book. Here’s hoping that Torrence’s work or future books of dragon magic will be improvements over this one.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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Not in Kansas Anymore – Christine Wicker

Not in Kansas Anymore: A Curious Tale of How Magic Is Transforming America
Christine Wicker
HarperSanFrancisco, 2005
276 pages

I first encountered this book when doing research for A Field Guide to Otherkin. I’d heard that the author had a chapter on Otherkin, and that was the first part I read. I wasn’t particularly impressed by what I found; it seemed a bit touristy and sensationalistic, though well-written.

Now that I have time to just read for the fun of it, I decided to give the entire book a chance. Unfortunately, my initial impressions aren’t that much different from how I feel now that I’ve seen the whole thing.

Wicker is a journalist, and it shows from the very beginning. She talks about her peers’ worries that she’ll “go native”, and her attempts not to do so are quite obvious. At least she’s honest, rather than pretending to be a member of a group to try to find out more about it. She states clearly where she’s coming from–not magical, pretty much an atheist, and seriously squicked about certain things (she seems terrified of BDSM in particular and takes any opportunity to describe it in lurid, evil manners).

The book seems largely dedicated to three subjects: Hoodoo, witchcraft and its variants, and Otherkin and vampires. She visits Zora Neale Hurston’s grave to get grave dirt, hangs out a bit with the Silver Elves, and gets witchy in Salem. In fact, she gets to have all sorts of experiences that numerous pagans and magical folk would love to have.

Granted, it does seem that she learns something from the experience. The book is a journey for her, from superstition to magic. Unfortunately, this is bogged down by numerous descriptions of various events and people that seme to be purposely slanted towards the extreme. She freaks out about every single instance of BDSM she encounters, describes in great detail just how bizarre everyone looks, and spends pages upon pages relaying the absolute worst of the paths she encounters. And while some of the people she interviews seem pretty down to earth and informational, others appear to be whoring for attention. Whether that’s the actual case, or just how Wicker chose to portray them, isn’t made clear here.

And everything is taken out of context, with the exception of some of the Hoodoo and witchcraft. Background information on the various topics she covers would have helped to ground her writing and make it seem less sensationalistic. For instance, all she really says about Wicca is that it’s white-light and not every pagan likes it. And she leaps from topic to topic fast enough to make my head spin.

I appreciate what Wicker was trying to do: present the magical fringes of society in a manner that the mainstream can palate. Unfortunately it feels more like a patchwork of whatever she happened to find; from reading this book one might assume that all vampires are into BDSM, all witches are tacky, kitschy, weird people who wear too much eye makeup, and that Hoodoo seems to be the only thing discussed that has any redeeming value. While it’s not as horribly sensationalistic as some of the “occult expose” books out there, there are better “outsider” views of magic and paganism out there and go in more depth; I recommend Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves by Sarah M. Pike, an academic look at the neopagan festival culture by someone who is not pagan but who manages to cover the material in a respectful, even-handed manner while writing at a level that non-academics can easily digest.

As for “Not in Kansas Anymore”…

Two pawprints out of five.

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The Wiccan Mystic – Ben Gruagach

The Wiccan Mystic: Exploring a Magickal Spiritual Path
Ben Gruagach
WitchGrotto Press, 2007
256 pages

The Wiccan Mystic is author Ben Gruagach’s answer to the complaint “I’m TIRED of Wicca 101 books! Where are the Wicca 201s?” With a few exceptions, he’s created a book that fits the bill.

The basic premise of the book is that Wicca is a mystery tradition, and the practitioner a mystic. He does a wonderful job making the argument that a mystery tradition doesn’t necessarily have to be group-oriented, and that the mystery is between the practitioner and the Divine. Those who are looking for good perspectives on Wicca as a solitary initiatory religion will definitely find useful fodder, and traditionalists may end up disagreeing. Gruagach holds his own, though.

The bulk of the book beyond the initial definitions deals with various topics of interest to the Wiccan who already has the basics down and wants to go further. There’s not a bunch of prefabricated spells and rituals, though; other than some pathworking templates in one of the appendices, it’s thankfully free of pre-crafted material. Instead we’re offered a wide variety of food for thought. Gruagach covers critical thinking skills, thoughts on balancing group and solitary work, philosophy and ethics, and even guidelines for critiquing a book in a balanced manner. All the material is aimed towards getting the reader to think about hir path, why s/he’s there, and what s/he’s going to do with it–without dogmatically flogging the author’s personal agenda (which doesn’t even come into play here).

There’s a bit of what initially looks like 101 material in here, but it’s approached from a 201 perspective. Rather than giving a list of deities, Gruagach offers up ideas on actually connecting to the Divine (rather than a “stereotype”, as he puts it). In other places he could have gone into a little more detail; the two paragraphs dedicated to familiars was pretty scant, and could have used a little more definition of what he was considering a familiar–it sounded a bit like he was considering all pets to be familiars. A little more elaboration on the various points that didn’t get so much attention would have helped to flesh the text out more.

I would also like to have seen more personal anecdotes to back up some of his thoughts. How have these ideas worked for him? What processes helped him learn what he passes on to others? Additionally, I think the appendix with the pathworkings could have been made into a standalone chapter.

There’s a terrific bibliography in the back; Gruagach has most certainly done his homework. It’s not all just neopagan source material, either; I saw Aldous Huxley in there, as well as a translation of the Greek Magical Papyrii. What I would really liked to have seen, though, is in-text or footnote citations of the material that didn’t come right out of his head (for example, his historical research). There are a few endnotes, but they tend to be more commentary on the material than actual citations. A big long bibliography is a lot more useful if there are citations in the main body of the work showing exactly where the author got a particular piece of information. Not only does it show the author’s work, but it also helps others who want to do more research on a given point or check the research against their own.

The only other quibble I have is with the layout. Maybe it’s just me, but the styles of fonts used for the headers seemed a little inconsistent, with a mixture of italics and bolds at various font sizes. The text also wasn’t justified, giving the right margin of the text a ragged look and giving away its self-published origin (though, to be fair, in both content and style it’s one of the best self-published works I’ve ever seen, and better than some of the traditionally published works out there!).

Still, the positives much outweigh the negatives here. Gruagach has created a much-needed text in the corpus of Wiccan knowledge beyond 101. I applaud his efforts, and encourage his writing career wholeheartedly!

Four pawprints out of five.

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Spirit Stones – Growling Bear

Spirit Stones
Growling Bear
Journey Editions, 1997
128 pages

Note: This book apparently initially came with a set of stones with animals on them, but I just had the book. The stones look easy to make, though.

“Spirit Stones” is one of a number of modern divination systems that are supposedly based on older traditions. It caters to those of the animal totem variety, featuring stereotypically “Native American totem” animals like Wolf, Bear, Snake and Frog, as well as other mostly Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals and other Traditional Native Animals. The book is meant as a guide for using stones with thes eanimals painted (or printed) on them.

I really have mixed feelings on this book. On the one hand, the author does cite some tribe-specific examples of relationships between humans and animals. However, he doesn’t cite his sources, giving only a list of recommended reading, most of which seems to be on Native American cultures in general. And he throws around a lot of talk about “Native American spirituality” without making tribal distinction, and falling into the “noble savage” stereotype that all Indians are close to the Earth spiritually and ignoring the very real problems facing them today. He does bring in some historical information about various tribes, to include not glossing over the fact that the U.S. government basically screwed them over.

Functionally, it’s an interesting system, all cultural appropriation issues aside. The author includes a few sample readings that really flesh out the concepts he talks about, and he does include a decent amount of information on his interpretation of each animal. It’s something I’d recommend to a beginner looking for a simple, easy animal-based divination system.

Overall, it’s getting two and a half pawprints. I like the idea and the inclusion of research on Native cultures, but there’s just enough plastic shamanism to make me cringe every couple of pages.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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The Ghosts of Blood and Innocence – Storm Constantine

The Ghosts of Blood and Innocence: The Third Book of the Wraeththu Histories
Storm Constantine
Tor Books, 2006
464 pages

This book is one of the reasons why I love Storm Constantine’s work. She manages to take everything she built up in the first two books of the trilogy, and bring it all together. There’s no stretching the text or trying desperately to fill pages; the pacing is wonderful, and it’s a page turner right to the end.

And it gets complex! All the hints from the first book, as well as some from the original Wraeththu trilogy, are brought together here in a plot that’s more bizarre and fascinating than I’d imagined. Ancient angelic lore, occultism and interplanar travel are featured as Wraeththu work through a truly monumental period of growth in their history. The story is full of suspense, with an incredibly satisfying ending.

As is Constantine’s style, we get to see some really interesting sides of various characters; I was particularly surprised to see what happened to Ponclast in this book. She has a good sense of balance for switching from one set of characters to the next, not letting us go too long without checking on everyone.

This book really brought the trilogy together, and it’s going to be a favorite read of mine for years to come.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Shades of Time and Memory – Storm Constantine

The Shades of Time and Memory: The Second Book of the Wraeththu Histories
Storm Constantine
Tor Books, 2005
448 pages

The second book of a trilogy has the toughest job, I think. The first book is the one that gets to introduce the setting and characters, while the third is the one to wrap it all up. The second book, though, has the task of fitting it all together. Shades accomplishes this quite nicely.

New characters as well as old are brought in to flesh out the world of Wraeththu. A leftover group of Uigenna, the Freyhallans who are descended from Norse humans, and others are brought in to join Pellaz, Cal, Caeru and other better-known main characters. Once again we’re treated to seeing how the various har develop as the story continues–there are no flat, emotionless beings here.

At first, some of the threads of story may seem to have no connection whatsoever. However, Constantine is skilled at taking these and weaving them together, so that by the end of the book we’re curious to see just what happens next and how it’ll all turn out.

Shades is an excellent bridge, neither being too long and boring, nor too hastily sketched out. It thrives in the role of second book, and is a wonderful addition to any sci-fi/fantasy fan’s shelf.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure – Storm Constantine

The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure: The First Book of the Wraeththu Histories
Storm Constantine
Tor Books, 2004
496 pages

This book continues the story of Wraeththu, Constantine’s first trilogy surrounding magical androynous hermaphrodites in a post-Apocalyptic world. Years after she wrote the first trilogy, she returns to this complex realm to weave more mythos.

There’s a definite difference in quality of writing between this series and the previous. This isn’t bad; it’s not a matter of one being better than the other. However, the feel of her writing has matured, adn doesn’t have quite as many rough edges as the original trilogy does.

As with the first time, though, we’re brought back into a world of well-developed characters and even better stories. There’s more information on the Parazha, a second group of hermaphroditic beings who sprung from women instead of men, and we get to see the development of hara who were relatively minor players in the first trilogy come into their own. Ulaume, who had a rather small, negative part in Wraeththu, ends up becoming quite a different person through the adoption of Lileem, an abandoned harling. Flick leaves Saltrock and is oenof the first hara to work with the Dehara, the gods of Wraeththu, through shamanic experiences in the desert. And there are some very unexpected twists and turns to the tale beyond even these.

I really enjoyed getting back into Storm’s writing, especially as Wraeththu is a favorite of mine. Highly, highly recommended for a good read.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Wraeththu – Storm Constantine

Storm Constantine
Orb Books, 1993
800 pages

This was my first introduction to Storm Constantine’s dark fantasy/sci-fi works. “Wraeththu” contains the first trilogy, The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, The Bewitchments of Love and Hate, and The Fulfilments of Fate and Desire.

Set in a post-Apocalyptic near-future, the stories are centered around the growth of Wraeththu, a species that mutated from huamnity. Wraeththu are hermaphroditic, and in a unique twist they develop from the male of humanity rather than the female, as some other authors have done. Seemingly immortal, they struggle both with their own natures and with overcoming the mistakes of humanity before them.

Each book is told in first person; the first tells the story of Pellaz, a young man taken away by Wraeththu and incepted (made into one), and what befalls him from there. Swift, one of the first second-generation Wraeththu (born rather than incepted), tells the second story, while Calanthe, a key character in the first two, rounds out the trilogy with the third.

Constantine has a wonderfully rich writing style. She’s adept at weaving together complex characters and a believable setting, and while her stories aren’t packed full of action, they more than make up for it in storytelling. This isn’t the kind of book that resembles a Hollywood movie; rather, it draws you into the tale and makes you want to see what decisions the characters will make next. Constantine also works a good bit of subtle occultism into the world of Wraeththu, both in ritual practices and in philosophy.

If you’re tired of fluff fantasy and want something with a little more meat to it, pick up this excellent introduction to Storm Constantine’s works.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Firebringer Trilogy – Meredith Ann Pierce

The Firebringer Trilogy (The Birth of the Firebringer, Dark Moon, Son of Summer Stars)
Meredith Ann Pierce
Various publishers and formats

I first read the first book of this trilogy when I was about 7 or 8. Of all the early delvings into fantasy fiction, this one stuck with me the most. It wasn’t until years later that the entire trilogy came back into print, and I was able to read the second two books. I also discovered that I was far from the only grown-up who was delighted to find these YA books available again.

Yes, it’s about unicorns, dragons, gryphons and wyverns. However, these are not fluffy little pastel beings. The unicorns are fierce warriors out on the plains, with sharp cloven hooves and razor-edged spiral horns. Characters die in the series, and the dangers are made very clear.

There is, of course, a prophecy involving the main character, Jan, the prince-to-be of the herd. The twists and turns of the story, though, lead him in some very interesting directions. For YA lit, this trilogy gets quite complex story-wise, and the characters show definite development and growth.

What I find particularly interesting in a pagan sense is the religions of the various herds of unicorns. For example, Jan’s herd does a circle dance every full moon to Alma, the mother of all, and there is a yearly pilgrimage to the sacred spring across the plains in the unicorns’ ancestral home, now overrun by wyverns. Additionally, Pierce gets into some really interesting ideas on spirituality in her writing as the story develops.

I won’t spoil the rest of the story for you; needless to say, this isn’t your average unicorn story.

Five hoofprints out of five.

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