Bear Daughter by Judith Berman

Bear Daughter
Judith Berman
Ace Books, 2005
422 pages

I don’t do much shopping for fiction any more, unless someone recommends a title. However, I was visiting my hometown not too long ago and stopped in at the sci-fi/comic book shop that I used to buy fantasy titles from on a weekly basis. I happened to see this novel and was drawn by the cover art, as well as the title. Because of it, I may just have to start browsing fantasy fic again.

Cloud is a twelve-year-old girl. Or, at least, she is now. Up until the beginning of the story, she was a brown bear living in the woods near a human settlement. Unsure of her place now, and with the leader of the community literally after her life, Cloud must figure out where to find safety, and why it is that she no longer wears a bearskin. The answers to her dilemmas are far from ordinary, as she is about to find out.

Normally I wince when an author tries to weave Native American cultural and spiritual elements into a work of fiction, particularly fantasy. Berman has the advantage of being an anthropologist, and additionally rather than trying to say that Cloud and her people are of a specific tribe, she instead draws on general cultural themes in the tribes of the Pacific Northwest (and is honest about doing so). Rather than being some lofty, Clan of the Cave Bear wannabe, Bear Daughter portrays a realistic, unromanticized and yet fascinating world created of threads of both truth and creative fiction.

I think my favorite parts had to be the descriptions of Cloud’s experiences with the spirit world. Berman does a spectacular job of capturing the otherworldly qualities of reported experiences in shamanic journeying and similar practices, yet Cloud’s own travels are anything but rote repeating of anthropological reports. Instead, the spirit world here is a unique thing, fraught with the same level of danger but not with the exact same beings. Again, it’s a great balance between what is in this reality, and what comes of the cosmology of a created world.

In short, I absolutely loved this book. I only wish the author had written more! I would recommend it especially who like a good bit of animism in their stories, but it’s a great read in general, too.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Sacred by Beck and Walters – September BBBR

The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life
Peggy V. Beck and Anna L. Walters
Navajo Community College (now Diné College), 1988
370 pages

The vast majority of books out there about “Native American spirituality” are utter hogwash. However, I picked this text up because I figured with it being published by a community college operated by Native Americans, that it would be a pretty accurate overview of the subject material. I wasn’t disappointed in the least.

First and foremost, The Sacred establishes the cultural contexts that Native Ameican tribal religions have developed in. While there are some generalizations made, the authors in no way try to equate these various belief systems or combine them into some universal path. Instead, they identify some common general trends, and then spend much of the book providing individual examples from a variety of tribes. The specific subjects run the gamut from shamanism to peyote rituals, ghost dancing and similar religious movements to rites of passage. I also appreciated the frank discussion of the very real effects that the colonizers had on the indigenous cultures, to include the variety of opinions and reactions that were offered.

While it is a textbook, it’s nowhere near dry or overly academic. One gets the distinct sense of these being living traditions, unlike many texts which try to place indigenous people in some mystical past. There’s a good balance, too, between stating the basic facts and displaying pride in heritage. The many photos add to both the scholarly value and humanistic elements of the text.

If you’re tired of generic “Native American spirituality” and dry anthropological studies, this is a great alternative. It shouldn’t be seen as the be-all and end-all of the subject, but it’s a good reality check and a nice resource if you want a quick reference to accurate information.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Lightbreaker by Mark Teppo

LightBreaker: The First Book of the Codex of Souls
Mark Teppo
Night Shade Books, 2008
342 pages

Most of the time I never get to meet in person the authors of books I review. So it was kinda cool when Mark Teppo, who recently published his first novel, came up to me at an event we were both at and handed me a copy of Lightbreaker. (Okay, scratch that–it was really cool.) It just so happened that said novel is of one of my absolute favorite genres–urban fantasy.

Markham, the main character, is intoduced to the reader as he is in hot pursuit–of a deer. A glowing deer. With a fugitive human soul in it. Headed straight for Seattle. No good can come of this, right? But it gets better–the soul can leap into human bodies, and only Markham’s magical senses and spirit guides can help him keep from losing his quarry in the metropolitan area. To complicate matters further, the soul won’t be going quietly, and before Markham can achieve his goal, here come the police, who are wholly ignorant of this whole metaphysical reality–or are they? There’s a lot going on, and that’s just in the first two chapters.

I’ll be honest and say that the next hundred or so pages were somewhat slow. But after that things picked up again, and I found it to be an excellent read. Teppo does a good job of worldbuilding, though I might have like a little more expository background writing to give some context to the political intrigue. However, I bet the next book will have more details to that end; as it was, there was enough to keep me immersed in the story in this one. And the ending was both satisfying, while also leaving plenty of room for returns to this world, which I eagerly await.

And guess what? No werewolves, or vampires (sparkly or otherwise)! Instead, Teppo’s story is based on Western occultism, particularly Qabalah and other forms of ceremonial magic. To be sure, there’s a lot of the fantasy element to it–souls shoving each other out of bodies with visible results, qlipothic spirits zapping rival mages–but the author knows his stuff as far as basic western magical theory goes. (Even if he does say that he’s concerned that some will say he didn’t research enough.) Plus–Portland’s in there! Yay!

Overall, I would most definitely recommend this author to my readers, and he’s going on my short list of Authors Whose New Books Get Preordered at Powell’s.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Animal in You by Roy Feinson

The Animal in You: Discover Your Animal Type and Unlock the Secrets of Your Personality
Roy Feinson
St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998
184 pages

I didn’t go into this book expecting it to be some serious text on animal totemism or symbolism. However, I was surprised at what I did find. The author has studied zoology and it shows, given his insight into animal behavior, which puts it head and shoulders above some of the more traditional totem animal dictionaries out there. Where other books are spiritually-oriented, this one is more of a light-hearted personality test, just for the fun of it.

The author devised a fairly complex but easy to use system for determining your animal personality: Answer a questionnaire with numbered answers, and use the patterns of the numbers to look up in an extensive chart in the back which animals are most likely to resemble your personality. It takes less than ten minutes to answer the questions, look things up, and read about the animals (which makes it fun for groups).

The interpretations of the various animals’ behavior is pretty biased toward anthropomorphization; the weasel personality, for example, is seen as shifty and not very trustworthy, which is human interpretation of the way weasels hunt out of necessity (and evolution). However, this is nicely balanced out by the author’s thorough research into each animal’s behavior and habitat, so it isn’t merely a bestiary of human moral attached to nonhuman animals.

I’d recommend it as a light-hearted take on animal symbolism, but nothing to take to heart any more than any casual personality test. (Oh, and my recommended animal personalities? Otter, Bat, and Snake.)

Four pawprints out of five.

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Rainbow Medicine by Wolf Moondance

Rainbow Medicine: A Visionary Guide to Native American Shamanism
Wolf Moondance
Sterling Publishing Company, 1994
192 pages

I tried to give this book a fair chance, despite my misgivings about claims of “Native American shamanism” from someone who, to my knowledge, isn’t recognized by any official tribe. (Having Cherokee and Osage genetics does not predispose one to knowing about a culture one has not been exposed to, or its religious practices.) While there are some useful practices in here, trying to call them a complete system of shamanism–or calling them Cherokee or Osage practices–would be seriously misleading.

As the title suggest, the information here is organized along the colors of the rainbow, though with an addition of “burgundy”, and several chapters on the directions and other natural phenomena. Each chapter includes the record of a journey the author did with the theme of the chapter, followed by a number of meditations, craft projects and other activities associated with the theme. And that’s pretty much it.

In and of themselves some of the journaling and meditation exercises are good reflection tools. Unfortunately, some of the activities, particularly crafts, are hijacked from various indigenous cultures, taken out of their context, and presented as “universal” practices. This, of course, dilutes their purpose as they need context which is unfortunately not provided here. One person’s journeying does not make up for the loss of an entire culture. Additionally, as mentioned, this seems to have less to do with complex Cherokee or Osage spirituality and more with core shamanism, New Age practices, and the author’s background in “human development” (does she have a degree in developmental psychology? Nothing is for sure.).

While I have no doubt that this can be an effective set of tools, both for the author and for some readers, I was disappointed by the lack of context, including but not limited to the lack of making direct connections between the author’s personal journey, and the exercises themselves. How much of this is the author’s own subjective experience, and how much is cultural material (however it may be presented)? It’s never made very clear.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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Witches & Pagans Magazine, Issue 19

Witches & Pagans Magazine
Various authors, editors, artists and other contributors
BBI Media, Autumn 2009
96 pages

First, a little background: Witches & Pagans is what happened when BBI Media merged their prior publications, PanGaia and newWitch. PanGaia was their more “serious” pagan publication, with a heavy eco-friendly slant and a target audience interested in ritual practices and spiritual experiences. newWitch came about a few years ago, and was met with some skepticism since its general themes were “sex, spells and celebs”. Some feared that newWitch would manifest all the worst stereotypes of image-obsessed teenybopper witches, and yet the publication managed to hold a fine balance between entertainment and facing controversial topics head-on. As a disclosure, I have written for both publications, so my potential bias should be noted.

Witches & Pagans has managed to blend elements of both magazines. This issue, for example, features interviews with musician S.J. Tucker and author R.J. Stewart (the faery AND initial issue!), something that newWitch was keen on. However, articles on 19th century mystic Ella Young, a surprisingly well-researched article on Cherokee fey beings, and several other in-depth writings on a central theme of Faery hail back to the best of PanGaia.

The regular columnists provided me with some of my favorite reading overall. Isaac Bonewits explored the practice of magic at different stages of one’s life, and how factors ranging from physical health to years of experience and knowledge can shape one’s energy and thereby one’s practice. Galina Krasskova did an excellent job of tackling the practice of celibacy as part of the ascetic’s path, something that a heavily hedonistic neopagan community may not often give much thought to. And I love Archer’s article on connecting to the wilderness through forests and their denizens, both physical and archetypal.

Those who were used to reading only one of the parent publications that merged to create this one may feel disappointed that there isn’t more of “their” stuff in there. However, one thing I appreciate about Witches & Pagans is that it brings together two potentially separate demographics in the pagan community–the more “serious” practitioners who look askance at the supposed “fluff” content of newWitch, and the energetic (though not always neophyte) envelope-pushers who might see their counterparts as muddy sticks. Both groups have much to offer in their own way, and Witches & Pagans does a nice job of showcasing the best of both worlds.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Drawing Down the Spirits by Filan and Kaldera

Drawing Down the Spirits: The Traditions and Techniques of Spirit Possession
Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera
Destiny Books, 2009
338 pages

It’s seldom that I get a book for review that’s truly something new under the Sun. While I get lots of good stuff (and some real stinkers, too), most of the books are variations on preexisting topics that have already been written about to a significant extent. Not so this one. While there have been books in the neopagan genre that have touched on spiritual possession, as well as less intense practices such as aspecting and “drawing down”, full-on possession has largely been left to academic perusals of African diaspora and shamanic practices and belief systems. So getting to read an entire text dedicated to the actual practice of spirit possession was a definite treat, particularly as “spirit work” has become more prevalent in recent years.

The text starts with a good theoretical overview of possession work–what it is, where it came from, and what people have been saying about it. Then we get into some of the details that are useful in setting up the actual practice, such as a thorough discussion of cosmologies (after all, understanding “what” spirits and gods are and “where” they are as well goes a long way in having context for working with them). After that, there’s a wealth of information on things to keep in mind when doing your own possession work, to include the good, the bad, and the terrifying.

Do be aware that this book is heavily influenced by the authors’ biases, to the point that some parts could be interpreted as offensive to some readers. For example, they are very much hard polytheists, meaning that they believe that individual deities are just that–individuals, not parts of a single archetype. Those who see deities in a more archetypal form are referred to as “atheists” in this text, which could be potentially inflammatory in its interpretation of what that may mean to the individual archetypal pagan. The dedication to hard polytheism over all other theistic views is a constant theme in the book, and because it comes across as heavy-handed at times could be off-putting to some readers.

However, I say this as a caveat, because I want people to be prepared enough to be able to look beyond it if necessary so that this book can be appreciated for what I really want to say about it: If you have any interest in the practice of spirit possession, you want this book. I don’t do possession work myself, at least not to the extent discussed here, but I know people who do, and this meshes pretty well with what they’ve described of their own experiences. The authors most certainly know their audience–they’re familiar with neopagans who may be themselves unfamiliar with full possession work, and therefore much of the material is geared toward not only helping the individual practitioner do their work with a relative amount of safety, but also doing so in an environment where what they’re doing may be seriously misinterpreted. Also, while the book (thankfully!) isn’t full of prescribed, pre-crafted rituals, the appendix with the detailed ritual outline is a definitely valuable resource.

There’s not much more I can say at this moment without utilizing the material myself, and I do have to wonder how a better environment for full possession might affect the experiences not only for myself, but for other neopagans who have only done such things as aspecting. Will this book help create more opportunities for this sort of work? Only time will tell. Needless to say, this is one of the best resources I’ve read this year, and it’s definitely keeping a good spot on the bookshelf (or off it, as it’s needed).

Five pawprints out of five.

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