The Last Circle by Gretchen Blickensderfer

The Last Circle
Gretchen Blickensderfer
Self-published 2013
486 pages

Reviewed by Amanda Fisher

This is a rather long but very compelling thriller, set in a near-future American dystopia. What could happen if all of the fundamentalist Christian wing-nuts got it all their own way politically? This, like the very different Handmaid’s Tale, shows a version of the results, and why we need to take their sometimes ridiculous rhetoric seriously. I know this is a political comment, and I make it because the politics of the book are unavoidable. If you are sympathetic to the extremes of right-wing political rhetoric and its aims, you will hate this book.

It’s very focused on the action, which is fast moving with strong tension- so much so that I finished it in 2 days, even though it’s almost 500 pages! (Don’t be too put off by the length; it moves very fast, plus the type size is large and the line spacing very open.) The plot is very twisty, too, and primarily character-driven… which leads to one of its problems. The characters of the Bad Guys, especially Shelby, are more like caricatures. They’re definitely sociopathic, and possibly (especially Shelby) literally insane. I do not see how a pragmatic, if sociopathic, leader like Stephen Palmer would allow someone as basically unhinged as Shelby into the top circle of power. But then, we don’t see enough of him to know if he’s also psychotic; he may be, and just hides it better.

The Good Guys are better drawn- generally sympathetic, but flawed and they quite often irritate both each other and the reader. The main problem I had with them is that they did not seem consistently flawed. Sometimes their attitudes and responses didn’t seem coherent to what had gone before. However, compared to the kind of action story in which all the Good Guys seem to be of one mind and always in accord, this is refreshingly realistic. I also did enjoy reading a thriller where modern Pagans were definitely the Good Guys!

I liked the way the setting addressed the idea of what the USA would look like if extremist fringe of the right wing got their way. This was pointed up by the quotes that start each chapter- actual quotes from actual public figures, cited at the end of the book- though I wished the cites had been included with the quotes themselves, and think that would have made a stronger point that people are really talking about doing these things, here and now.

Dystopias tend to be exaggerated, and that’s true here. I really don’t think that the USA would slide into becoming a nation of fanatics in 5 or so years, especially not to the degree depicted.
Mostly people are far too apathetic for that…and if they were going for the apathetic as well as the “unbelievers”, they would not have much popular support- especially after they took away all the raunch in the media! I could be wrong about this, but very much hope I am not.

My final quibble has to do with the writing style, especially some of the word choices. They were odd in their rhythms and connotations. For example: “…[Texas] closing its borders to all but the most loyal paramours of Jesus.” (pg. 454) “Paramours” implies a far more carnal relationship than I think the author meant! Similarly, “She was screaming in berserk agitation as a third [agent] hammered a baton onto her gunshot wound.” (pg. 362). The nuances of neither “berserk” nor “agitation” really seem to fit the described scene. Also: “All were tacitly organized and, under Lilyan’s covert direction, assuaged their outraged guilt…” (pg. 377) It’s really awkward, since the adjectives do not match up well with the nouns they’re paired with. These are three examples, but this dissonance permeated the book. It’s as if the author used a thesaurus to find a fancier word with an arguably similar meaning, rather than choosing a plainer word that fit the sentences more comfortably.

I got this book for reviewing for paganbookreviews.net and I’m glad I did. I enjoyed it a lot despite its flaws, and would be interested in more from
Blickensderfer.

3.5 pawprints out of five.

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Beatrysel by Johnny Worthen

Beatrysel
Johnny Worthen
Omnium Gatherium, 2013
385 pages

Reviewed by Micheal

Initially, I had a difficult time getting interested in this book; the pace was slow and it started in such a way that it leaves the reader wondering why the demon is after Lady Sasha. However, I continued to read and by the third chapter, I was intrigued and as the characters developed, there’s the unethical psychiatrist, the intelligent and occult oriented professor…I became more and more fascinated with them and their interactions.

I found the book to be a nice blend of mystery, occult, and horror (only in the way that some characters died), and I have yet to read a book that has merged these genres before and Worthen did an exceptional job. The images of the Magickal temple, chants, all possess a realness that one doesn’t find too often in a work of fiction. The characters came alive with their own struggles, many of which, any reader could experience: adultery, lust, jealousy, etc. The one that might be lacking is creating a demon and a new grimoire for the modern age, however, this is developed in such a way in the book that it seems plausible and is not filled with hyperbole or cliched images of classical films.

My one complaint, would be that discovering the identity of the antagonist was too easy, I had suspicions by chapter 30 and knew who it was by chapter 40.

Overall, this was a fantastic read and one that I’ll likely read again. I can easily give it 5 paws out of 5.

Five pawprints out of five.

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My Name is Cernunnos by Dusty Dionne and Jared Mackenzie

My Name is Cernunnos
Dusty Dionne (Author) and Jared Mackenzie (Illustrator)
Jupiter Gardens Press, 2013
62 pages

Reviewed by Uloboridae

As a reader, one of the many book-related phrases I have heard in life is “don’t judge a book by its cover”. In this case, my mistake was judging a book by its title.

I selected “My Name is Cernunnos” because I thought it would be a nice little story about Cerrunnos, or perhaps be a young child’s introduction to deities or mythology related to Cerrunnos. Instead, it is essentially “Baby’s first Animal Guide dictionary”, where Cerrunnos introduces the reader to some of his animal friends and describe what they symbolize. Not a bad, but it was completely unexpected.

The story centers on the reader being introduced to Cernunnos’s animal friends around the forest, both wild and domestic. The reader learns from Cernunnos about each animal’s particular powers, and learns how to apply their lessons to the reader’s life (i.e. appreciate what you have, listen to the adults in your life, etc.).

This could have been a good book, but the lack of consistency in both its writing style and its subject matter is why I give this book a low score. Most of the book is written in plain English and the symbolism is basic and easy for a young child to understand, so why have fancy words like “widdershins” to describe the energy of Cat when “clockwise” or “counterclockwise” works just as well? Why does the idea that Cat has opposing energy currents even matter in the first place? There is no explanation. At least the description of the Hummingbird having fairy garb and fairy associations makes sense because Hummingbirds DO look and act like common depictions of fairies. In contrast, the description of Cat just becomes too abstract for a young child, to the point where it’s meaningless (even as an adult, I fail to see what point Cat’s description has for the reader). To be fair, the book does give a glossary at the end of what those, and other new (to the child) terms mean. As a result, for others this may be turned into a teaching tool for their children.

The cow is another animal whose introduction felt wholly out of place. Most of the book had animals in rather familiar North American/European settings. When Cow came along though, suddenly a picture of a Hindu addressing an Indian Cow in religious regalia appears, with a vague description on how Cow is “a God to some people”. What People? Tell us more, this sort of thing is interesting! Don’t just randomly do this with Cow when you could add this sort of information to many of the other animals, like Cat and Crow. Children’s books do not need an overload of detail, but being very vague can make them lose interest too.

Finally, and this may be debatable, the book uses the term “medicine” frequently when referring to what each animal symbolizes. This could be considered cultural appropriation to some. Personally, I would not be comfortable reading this to a child, as I am not a member of any Native American tribe and did not grow up in a culture that gives context to the concept of “animal medicine”.

The illustrations in the book are charming and colorful, drawn in a comic-like style. There is a variety of people and animal activities present, along with different details to search for that tells a story (on their own and with the written text). The facial expressions (on humans and other animals), for example, are varied and can create a story within itself to the imaginative reader. My favorite is the page where Deer gives a monster an exasperated look, as if to sigh and say “You again? Are you kidding me? I just got rid of you on the last page”. I literally laughed out loud when I noticed that. I do not know if this book is meant to be as a print or as a .pdf file, but I feel that the illustrations would benefit greatly from being in a printed book format. The .pdf file format tends to degrade the images a bit, to the point where the labels on the animals are not quite legible.

Overall, I feel that this is an interesting topic and is arranged in a good format for a children’s book. However, I would recommend a tightening up of the language, and making the information more consistent, and clear.

Three pawprints out of five.

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Worlds Apart by Stephen B. Pearl

Worlds Apart
Stephen B. Pearl
Dark Dragon Publishing, June 2013
352 pages

Reviewed by Ser

It should be noted before going further that I received a prepublished, uncorrected proof for review. Therefore, it didn’t have the cover art or summaries to hint at what I was getting myself into.

Worlds Apart is a romantic fiction novel about Alcina and Markus, two pagans from similar yet completely different worlds. Both dealing with struggles and opposition in their respective worlds, their paths suddenly intersect when a science experiment-slash-ritual brings Markus hurtling into Alcina’s world.

It took me a little while to get into the story, but once I was in the plot it was enjoyable. There were a plethora of characters but it wasn’t too complicated to keep track of them. The only confusing spot for me was when the author chose to continue the story in Markus’ world after his disappearance, and I had to play catch-up to figure out who these new characters were. I’m glad the author did choose to continue the story in this world though, as it really helped build up the storyline and presented some new characters (including a sex-obsessed vampire).

I especially enjoyed the tension as Markus learned of Alcina’s world, its different cultures and technologies. The times he stumbled brought a realistic and relatable humor. I thought it was cute that he uses The Magic School Bus to learn our world’s science – excellent choice, Markus!

The author also chose to use humor in some of the chapter titles. Generally good, these sometimes spoil the chapter’s content, and titles such as “Why are the Cute Ones Always Nutz?” only took me out of the story wondering why that “z” is there.

The pagan elements were, on a whole, interesting. There were spots I felt could do with more explanation (as I do not have experience or knowledge of certain deities) or just an extra sentence or two to clear up what was going on. There is a lot of Christian-bashing, mostly directed at an overly zealous cult, but also Christian hate in general. I’m pleased that, for the most part, such generalized hate is commented on by other characters and explained that not all Christians (or those practicing other monotheisms) are bad.

Romance novels are not my cup of chai, and had I known that was the genre of this book I would not have picked it up. There are plenty of sex scenes (and mentions of “nether lips”, which amused me rather than entice me). As it is romance, there was also plenty of sexual humor and discussion outside of the sex scenes – I can’t think of a character in the book that didn’t have some discussion, mental or otherwise, about another character’s breasts, legs, or butt. While appropriate for a romance novel, it isn’t realistic. The only character not interested in boffing, an unnamed side character, was told by Alcina that it was her responsibility to “be a woman” and that her desire to not have sex was only a power game. (pg 58) There are also a few spots of sexism, and not just from the cult. Particularly Markus and Alcina’s discussion about how things are “only chauvinistic when it doesn’t exactly work to your benefit”…”Exactly, just ask any woman”. (pg 169)

Some of the descriptions were a bit of a stretch as well; my particular favorites being, “Only the very observant would notice that her small breasts only rose and fell with breath when she spoke,” (pg 53) and “She liked the fact that this stranger had hoped to see her [naked]” (pg 41). While now realizing this is a romance novel, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Really?” No matter how attractive someone is, I don’t think I’d ever be comfortable, let alone enjoy, being nude around a person who popped out of my ritual circle speaking another language and poking me with magical language-translating earrings (similar to a Babel fish, though I’m still a bit fuzzy on the particulars).

There were a number of typographical and grammatical errors, particularly from Chapter 29 on, but as I read the uncorrected proof I cannot speak to whether these have been revised. There was also a spot of character name confusion, as Markus was referred to as Marlon (pg 10) and I had to reread a few times to see if I had simply missed the addition of this new character. Hopefully, this too was corrected.

After reading this proof, I was ready to give this book a low score. I didn’t enjoy the plethora of sex and genitalia-obsessed characters and felt it detracted from the book. When I looked up the book to see if it had been published, and saw the cover, I realized I had to reconsider my review and base it on the book as it was intended. Looking at the plot, character development and overall writing, I think this would be an enjoyable book for any romance fan.

Three and a half pawprints out of five.

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Rabbit’s Song by S.J. Tucker, Trudy Herring and W. Lyon Martin

Rabbit’s Song
Written by S.J. Tucker and Trudy Herring, illustrated by W. Lyon Martin
Magical Child Books, 2009
32 illustrated pages

If you haven’t become acquainted with the rich fabric that is S.J. Tucker’s storytelling skill, here’s a chance to introduce both yourself and your child to her way with words. In this collaboration with author Trudy Herring, Tucker creates a delightful tale of how rabbit and other overlooked animals became favorites of the trickster, well before they gained their fame through such pranks as stealing the sun. Its message is clear–even the humblest beings have important places in the world, a crucial moral to give to any child. And the amazingly complex and appealing illustrations by artist W. Lyon Martin give this book a sense of life and movement while evoking the Otherworld of mythos.

The suggested readership is 5 years and up. It would be easy to say this is a book for pagan children, but that’s selling it short. Many children are raised with world mythology, and this lovely tale draws inspiration from the best of those. Animals and nature feature prominently in a lot of children’s books as well, and this one has a variety of wild creatures beckoning the reader in. However, even adults can enjoy the rolling lyrics and lovely artwork of this book, making this a finely crafted tale fit for a wide range of readers.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Epona by Robin Whitten

Epona
Robin Whitten
Jupiter Gardens Press, 2013
25 pages

Reviewed by Ser

Epona is a short-story focused on Amelia, a woman at a critical point in her life. She struggles to rediscover herself in the face of a heart-breaking loss and a devastating accident.

While short, this story runs a gamut of emotions as we travel with Amelia through her memories. From sadness, to safety, to the embarrassing first conversations of a new relationship, to frustration and loss and fear, it’s no hard task to relate with the narrator and understand where she is coming from. Some moments it is difficult to tell whether we are in the past or the present, but I feel this works well with the storyline.

There were some sticky points in the narration that could use refinement – two sentences in particular, “After cooling off, they walked over to a small spring to cool off” (pg 16), and “she was afraid they would over to rescue her” (pg 23). A bit of revision would serve these areas well. There are also a few areas with unnecessary capitalization that could be reviewed.

Amelia’s life revolves around horses, and it’s beautiful to see how they are woven into the story. There is a brief mention of the Preakness which isn’t integral to the story, yet detracted from it for me as I had to look it up (I’m not knowledgeable about horses). The pagan elements are light and non-pervasive, yet essential and lovely.

Overall, while there are a few spots that could be improved upon, I thoroughly enjoyed this story and what it offers the reader. It does much with the short story format; I’m pleased the author recognized this and kept it at current length. The ending warmed me and is alone worth the read.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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Queen and Commander by Janine Southard

Hive Queen Saga #1: Queen and Commander
Janine A. Southard
Self-published, 2013
265 pages

Reviewed by Nicky

In the words of the author herself, Queen and Commander is a sci-fi ensemble cast fiction novel. Set in the future, the story is based in a world in which members of society are designated ranks based on testing. Once designated, the males join “hives”, living under the benevolent rule of a Queen, who they have “devoted” to. The book covers the maiden voyage of the spaceship Cerridwen’s Cauldron, headed by new Queen Rhiannon with Gavin, Luciano, Victor, Alan and Gywn as her hive.

This is a very easy read, mostly owing to the fact the author largely avoided the space opera trope of over describing every boring technical detail. Additionally, the world the author has created is an intriguing one. It’s extremely hierarchical with protocol prescribed to the nth degree. Right from the beginning I was trying to figure out the intricacies. It was also refreshing to see the Welsh language – and Wales, in general – taking centre stage for once.

As for the characters, I liked that none were too perfect – though Rhiannon bordered on perfection a little too much at times – or too annoying to be believable or to make me care about them. The author was able to use challenges to bring the very different members of the hive into a cohesive group and for many there was notable character growth. The characters clearly learn from their experiences and try to integrate these lessons into the way they conduct themselves. That said, I did feel that Gwyn needed stronger character development and that Luciano’s adoration of Rhiannon could be toned down.

The main issue that brought the book down for me was that it was a bit slow paced. While the author avoided telling the reader about the name, exact shape and colour of every button pushed, the narrative nonetheless seemed a little too bogged down in minor scenes, staying in the mundane routine running of the ship a little too long. I understand that the cast is made up of young, newly graduated youths but it became tedious reading about them figuring out how to do this or that and perusing manuals. The best analogy is that it read like the first episode of a sci-fi series, albeit a very promising sci-fi series.

Due to the focus on the mundane, I felt that there wasn’t enough action early on. The majority of the conflict felt shoved in at the end. At the same time, I never really worried they wouldn’t get out of it, except for one brief moment with Gavin.

Despite its flaws, overall this is a decent read and a promising start to a series. It was certainly entertaining and intriguing enough to keep me reading and even curious about the next instalment.

Three and half paw prints out of five.

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El Brujo by Thomas Gerard

El Brujo
Thomas Gerard
Self-published (Printmaker), 2007/2012
218 pages

Reviewed by Lady Anastasia

***Spoilers ahead***

“When you are following your life’s purpose, when you are doing things you were born to do, then everything becomes easy. Money flows your way. All of the things that make you happy seek you out with little effort on your part, life is abundant.” -El Brujo

Born to a Spanish father and a half breed Irish/Apache mother, Pete Mondragon was known as a coyote. The tale of El Brujo follows Pete from the age of 12 when he lost his father, leaving his ranch on the outskirts of El Rito, New Mexico, and travels to the Apache Reservation to be raised by his Uncle Jack. Uncle Jack is a charismatic man who has a special way with the ladies, and even during the tough times, has abundant cash flow. Some who live on the reservation attribute this to him being a medicine man, others to his being a witch or warlock, when asked by Pete, Jack simply tells him that he is “El Brujo”.

Pete spends the next few years learning about coyote medicine and tending to the horses on his Uncle’s ranch and going to school. Things are fairly uneventful until Jack dies shortly before Pete is 18. Pete spends his last summer between childhood and adult hood sleeping under the stars, finding himself and connecting on a deeper level with his coyote medicine. Summer over, Pete joins the army and ends up overseas.

The next interesting milestone in the book is when Pete spends a year in New Orleans with an army buddy who introduces him to Papa Legba, and American Hoodoo practitioners. There seems to be an interesting balance between Pete’s coyote medicine and the Hoodoo rites and the instances where Pete becomes possessed by Papa Legba.

The next few years of Pete’s life have him reconnecting with his Maternal Grandfather, becoming a photographer during set production and meeting his wife, Pete’s life is good. But I’ll leave the rest of his life in the book, there are other key characters.

Enter Maria Mondragon. Maria inherits some of Pete’s knowledge, and ability to use Coyote medicine, as well as some of his skill with the camera. She becomes a famous fashion photographer in NM. Without getting into too much detail at this point, I’ll admit, this is where the author starts to lose me and my interest.

When painting the picture of Maria’s photography empire, the author spends a little too much time over detailing the cost of things, and the emphasis on making money, spending money, paying employees wages and spending on extravagant things that the dollar signs actually detract from the actual story line. More than once, I felt my eyes glaze over when reading chapters that dealt heavily with financial aspects.

I will also point out that during the second half of the book and during the focus on Maria Mondragon, you are also introduced to a handful of New Age practices, including Yoga, meditation, Kundalini and a women’s group that seems to be of the Wiccan flavor. Not to be overly critical but I felt like the author was now cramming as many different spiritual paths, practices and ideologies into the book as possible.

I did enjoy the portion of the story that dealt with Changing Woman, but I think that bouncing from trad to trad also ends up detracting from the story. All in all, I will say that the first half of the book was great, I enjoyed reading about Pete and watching him grow and learn. The second half of the book, I like the character of Maria, I just wish I didn’t know down to the penny what she was spending her money on. I would recommend the book to anyone who wanted to do a little bit of light reading.

Two pawprints out of five.

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Witches Revelation by Timothy Gibbons

Witches Revelation: A Novel
Timothy Gibbons
Self-published, 2010
276 pages

The world has fallen into chaos. The human population has been devastated by a plague. The remnants of the U.S. military struggle to maintain what order they can amid attacks by a strange religious cult with entirely too much firepower. The remaining civilians do what they can to survive amid the turmoil. One young woman finds herself the final survivor of a massacred encampment, and suddenly thrust into a world tinged with esoteric symbolism–and reality.

Such is the basic plot of this first novel by Timothy Gibbons. It’s an intriguing premise, and the world-building is pretty solid. Gibbons manages to create a believable dystopic future, albeit one somewhat scant on details at times, but a rich visit nonetheless. While his characters are a bit flat, they’re interesting enough to follow through, and some development does occur over the course of the story.

Gibbons is a good writer. His description is good, but his dialogue is better. The conversations flow well, and even the internal dialogue of the characters has good life to it. Spots of humor shine amid the sober background, and there’s a lot of talent in there. And while the pace is slow sometimes, the conclusion both is satisfying, but also leaves plenty open for future books.

The book does fall prey to some common self-publishing problems. While Gibbons is a good writer, there are some areas–such as the aforementioned issues with character and plot–that a good editor could help him tighten up. And there are numerous typos through the entire thing, which got to the point of distraction. Finally, he does what a lot of esoteric fiction writers do–too much tell, not enough show, when weaving the esoteric elements into the storyline. Less exposition, more demonstration, would have helped this a great deal.

Still, for a first novel, self-published, it’s a good showing. I think with some professional editing for both style and content, Gibbons could have some truly outstanding works on his hands. As it is, it’s a good but not great read, worth a look and definitely worth finishing.

Three and a half pawprints out of five.

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Wiccan Shadows by Lori J. Schiele

Wiccan Shadows
Lori J. Schiele
ImaJinn Books, 2011
282 pages

I admit that ever since I read Rosemary Edghill’s Bast books I’ve been a fan of fantasy-flavored pagan-ish fiction. And in recent years, as the paranormal romance and related fiction market has exploded, authors have been quite happy to oblige my demand. Of course, the quality has varied: authors who forget that show is better than tell when working pagan material into the story, Mary Sue characters, and just plain bad writing.

Happily, Wiccan Shadows avoids these issues, which is especially impressive considering the author utilizes elements that have often hit trope territory–werewolves, for example, and a Big Bad Evil Thing that the protagonist and her coven must work against magically to save themselves and potentially the world. Schiele takes these elements of her story and weaves them into an enjoyable, well-written, and fast-paced book with just enough romance to add it into that genre, but not so much as to be overwhelming.

The story starts with the violent death of one of the coven members, and immediately we’re introduced to some of the worldbuilding that Schiele has done. Like some authors, she takes some liberties with what magic is and what being Wiccan actually means; one of the characters relies on her “Wiccan senses”, for example, and such things as communication with animal familiars and astral projection are given much more power and omniscience than in real life. It’s not overdone, though, and these things make sense in an alternate reality where spiritual beings can manifest physically. This makes it a good setting for the unfolding story in which the identity of the murderer is ambiguous at best, and the danger to the remaining members of the coven grows with every hour.

The love triangle–such as it is–seems a little forced and predictable, as the main protagonist’s current significant other becomes an increasing asshole, while Shiny New Sexy Guy–who just happens to be a werewolf–and who also happens to be an animal control officer–steps in. There’s no question as to who to root for. Still, the interactions are realistic, and just about everyone knows someone who’s been in each place in that dynamic.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say that it made me curious to see how Schiele will develop this series in later books. While I felt there was closure, I got enough of the glimpse of this world to want to visit it again. Well done.

Five pawprints out of five.

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