Magickal Mystical Creatures – D.J. Conway – April BBBR

Magickal Mystical Creatures
D.J. Conway
Llewellyn, 2001
260 pages

This book was a freebie from a friend. I had been less than excited about Conway’s Animal Magick and Dancing with Dragons (though I just got the newest edition of the latter from newWitch magazine, so we’ll see what kind of a review it gets).

I was actually surprised; I liked this one better than the other two. I still have my gripes, but I am admittedly pretty picky. This particular book is an encyclopedia of various mythological beings from around the world–primarily Eurasian, but with a smattering of beings from other places as well. They’re divided by type–canines, gryphons and their ilk, various types of unicorn, etc. (I do have to say I loved the illustrations, too!)

There’s a decent amount of information on each being gleaned from mythological and historical sources. Additionally, Conway adds in psychological interpretations of the kind of people who could either be helped or hindered by each entity, depending on its nature. She does also recommend that dangerous beings be avoided by all but the most experienced magicians (and sometimes not even then).

I think my biggest complaint is that it’s simply not enough. Many of the beings that she recommends as being safe aren’t necessarily so. For example, she presents unicorns as being mostly positive beings who can lead the reader into Faery. However, there’s not much warning about the fact that unicorns were originally seen as fierce, dangerous creatures, and that Faery generally isn’t someplace you want to just waltz on into. Even the “nice” faeries aren’t particularly safe, especially if you study the original lore. As with a lot of basic pagan titles of the mid 1990s, things that really aren’t safe and easy are presented as welcoming and available to all, with little warning of potential hazards.

And this is why I strongly recommend that you not stick with just a dictionary. While this has its uses, it’s a starting point primarily, and the actual practical information comprises less than a score of pages, and it’s mostly spellwork 101. Use this guide to get you introduced to what’s out there, but then do your research with other sources, both on magical practice and on lore surrounding the beings you want to work with.

Three pawprints out of five.

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Wealtheow – Ashley Crownover

Wealtheow: Her Telling of Beowulf
Ashley Crownover
Iroquois Press, 2008
208 pages

I admit that I’m rather jaded against the “feminist revision” of numerous traditional tales. I enjoyed MZB’s Mists of Avalon way back when, but got tired of the “Women are always good” vibe I got after a while (as well as the Avalonian-Goddess-worship-is-historical movement that also rose up in response to the novels). And I continue to see rather awkward, “GIRL POWER!” reworkings of various stories and themes, including in fantasy lit.

Wealtheow manages to avoid the cliched pitfalls while maintaining a unique perspective on the story of Beowulf. The story centers on Hrothgar’s wife, Wealtheow, from the time of their marriage through Grendel’s siege and on into Beowulf’s arrival. Rather than presenting a simpering maiden or a GODDESS! worshipper, Crownover gives us a Wealtheow who is dedicated to her people (both those she grew up among, and those she married into), as well as to the sanctity of the land. Though she shows strength of character, this is no Mary Sue; not everything is perfect for her. And the devastating secret that brings about the creation of Grendel becomes a burden only she can truly carry. And I like how the story doesn’t turn into “Women are always good, men are the bad guys” dualism; Grendel’s mother has a surprising origin in this tale!

This is a very quick read; I finished it in a day, and it would be a good book to take on a plane trip. It’s well-written, though. I had no trouble remembering which character was which, and she manages to tell a relatively short story without using cardboard characters. She weaves the traditional tale of Beowulf with her own embellishments that are believable and blend well with the original. I can’t speak to the historical accuracy, so I can’t guarantee that modern heathens won’t be having similar wincing moments that other pagans had in response to the Avalon books. However, the descriptions of Danish culture and religion didn’t strike me as nearly as fanciful as some other modern revisionist tales, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying the tale rather than groaning in pain from some poorly executed “update” or “improvement”.

Overall, this is a great debut novel, and I very much look forward to more from this author.

Five pawprints out of five

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Facing North Reviews

For those who don’t know, I’ve been a reviewer with Facing North from its inception. Webmistress and author Lisa McSherry started it as an online database of reviews of esoteric texts; while I’ve shared some of my reviews from here over there, I also have some that are unique to that site. Here are the links to what I have there at this point:

The Druid Magic Handbook by John Michael Greer
Your Altar by Sandra Kynes
Wisdom Walk by Sage Bennett
Pagan Prayer Beads by John Michael Greer and Clare Vaughn
The Bitch, the Crone and the Harlot by Susan Schacterle
Creativity for Life by Eric Maisel, Ph.D.
When Fear Falls Away by Jan Frazier
Circle, Coven and Grove by Deborah Blake
Moon Days by Cassie Primo Steele

I strongly suggest checking out Facing North, as well as the other reviewers I have linked on the left sidebar.

Wicked Game – Jeri Smith-Ready

Wicked Game
Jeri Smith-Ready
Pocket Books, May 2008
384 pages

Branching into more fiction has been good for my sanity. It’s been a nice break from all the nonfic, especially denser texts that may take a while to process. I’m fortunate in that I’ve gotten some good selections, and the vampire novels that Simon and Schuster (who own Pocket Books) have been sending my way are among the best.

Jeri Smith-Ready’s Wicked Game is no exception to that. Set in a small town in the northeast, the story follows Ciara, a sometimes con artist, newbie assistant at a radio station, and well-seasoned skeptic. All’s well for about the first thirty pages–and then the bomb gets dropped. Those nighttime DJs? Vampires, all of them. Which is to be expected in a vampire novel. However, Smith-Ready creates an interpretation of the vampire that goes well beyond the black cape, bats, and Bela-wannabes. In the world of Wicked Game, vampires become locked into the time they were turned; Spencer, for example, has the slick ducktail and greaser style of a 1950s rocker, while Shane’s circa-1995 death keeps him in a perpetual state of Cobain-seque grunge. The music they play as DJs keeps them linked to both the past and present–but what about the future? After all, the radio station’s about to get sold to a major conglomerate, and somebody very important is very unhappy about the station’s latest ad campaign…

Interested yet? You should be. The plotline is incredibly fast-paced and well balanced. Smith-Ready is quite talented with first person voice, managing to give the reader enough background information while at the same time showing Ciara at her most public–and most private. In many novels there’s a tendency to lag at some point in the story. Not so here. This tale kept my interest all the way through, whether the moment was action-packed or sweet and silent.

The characterization is even stronger. Ciara starts with her temporally challenged vampires, adds in some extra quirks, and manages to make them quite likable. Smith-Ready works in minor details that remind the reader of what makes them vampires, and successfully blends these details into the rest of the story. However, they’re not so minor as to be insignificant. And she comes up with good reasons for them–she even manages a plausible theory on the garlic thing! The human characters are equally fleshed out, and she managed to not get me confused about who was who (which is a tougher feat than you might assume!)

What makes this novel really fun are the numerous musical references. It’s nice to see a vampire novel that doesn’t hinge entirely on Goth aesthetics to make it go, and this includes the choice of music. From 1940’s blues to contemporary pop-punk, Smith-Ready gives this book a virtual soundtrack that shows her knowledge and research of music, and a good ear for good listening. Music trivia geeks will find a few gems in here, and fans of various musicians mentioned may find some joy in shared fandom. (Plus I picked up a few extra CD ideas that I hadn’t heard of before–added bonus!)

Overall, this is a fun novel, and it definitely stands out from the crowd of Anne Rice wannabes. It’s a great choice for commute, plane trip, or curling up in a comfy chair for a few hours. Plus it’s a good enough story that it’s got plenty of re-read value. And there are enough hints towards a continuing story that I’m quite hopeful for a sequel–something I definitely encourage the author to do!

Five pawprints out of five.

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A Field Guide to Modern Pagans In Hamilton, Ontario – Neil Jamieson-Williams

A Field Guide to Modern Pagans In Hamilton, Ontario
Neil Jamieson-Williams
Australopithecine Press
146 pages

This is a really cool book. It’s an in-depth study of the pagan community in Hamilton, Ontario by a member of said community. Neil Jamieson-Williams is an academic as well, holding degrees in both anthropology and sociology, and he approaches this work with that as well as his personal background in a healthy balance. His experience as an academic lends itself to a professional treatment of the topic at hand, but his experience within the community he studies tempers it without showing too much bias.

The author starts with a basic overview of modern paganism, and then proceeds into some good advice on how to observe pagans (for we are wily critters!) He’s quite open about the fact that academics may do some pretty covert observations of people who don’t realize they’re being observed, including online in forums and elsewhere. And he stresses the importance of being open with the people you’re observing (no doubt to help would-be observers to avoid “Luhrmann syndrome”*) However, he’s also honest about the methods by which academics may “ethically” obtain material, some of which may raise the hackles of more private pagans. It’s a refreshing sort of honesty.

The rest of the book is dedicated to profiles of different covens and other groups in the Hamilton area at the time of the book’s publication. Jamieson-Williams is quite open about the fact that pagan groups are often short-lived, especially those he terms “Eclectic”, and that his book may be dated in a short time. However, this does not detract from the systematic explanation of the different groups and lineages represented in his chosen demographic, nor the frank appraisal of their varying levels of participation in the community at large (and how that may affect the budding ethnographer’s attempts to study them).

My quibbles are minor. There are a few typos scattered throughout the book, even taking into account my American eyes and the author’s Canadian English. Additionally, there are a few points I would question, such as his assertion on p. 14 that “the vast majority of Modern Pagans absolutely despise the term Neopagan”. I’d say that some do, but not the vast majority. Even if this were a regional difference, it goes against his later cautioning against generalizing based on too small a selection of study participants.

But these are small things, and should not deter even the casual reader. Overall, I applaud the existence of this book. It’s valuable to pagans because it shows us a potential way of communicating about ourselves in a way that nonpagans may be more amenable to than, say, a practical book on spells. It also points the way towards a more advanced way of exploring the community; we do have our academics in the community, though even nonacademics may use this as inspiration for their own explorations and ways of communicating about paganism to others. For academics, pagan or otherwise, it’s an example of a sensitive, yet effective, study of a particular group of pagans that allows the freedom to explore and learn, but also shows areas where we may feel particularly vulnerable and may ask for more respect. And for members of the mainstream community who are not pagan or academic, it’s an accessible guide that shows pagans in a realistic, relatively neutral light. The writing style, while fitting academic standards, is still understandable to the layperson rather than couching itself in too much complexity and jargon. In all, it’s a very balanced book.

Personally, I would like to see more books like this, studies of specific demographics. Granted, not every community has its very own long-term resident pagan-academic. And I don’t think every book should be a carbon copy of this one. However, just as some people study specific tribes, or even specific indigenous communities, so may there be value in looking at individual pagan communities in detail. This has tended to be more slanted towards specific traditions spread across wide geographic locations. But in-depth studies of specific locales and their corresponding communities may help give some insight on unique concepts, such as where pagans are more populous and/or active, and what factors may contribute to that. I also encourage people to take the same well-balanced approach that Jamieson-Williams has in this book, offering a little of something for everyone.

Five pawprints out of five.

* This refers to Tanya Luhrmann, an academic who studied pagans in the ’80’s, who took advantage of the trust of pagans who treated her less like an academic and more like their own after a time. They gave her oathbound material that she then released into a more public domain. (In Wallis 2004 as referenced by Ellwood 2008, p. 62)

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