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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Temple of the Twelve, Vol. 1: Novice of Colors by Esmerelda Little Flame

Temple of the Twelve, Vol. 1: Novice of Colors
Esmerelda Little Flame
New Gaia Press, 2008
278 pages

A young woman finds herself at the threshold of service to great deities who embody archetypal powers. Rather than a relationship of fear, though, can she create connections of love and devotion with them?

I had heard about the Temple of the Twelve books from a few friends who were working through the pathworking system woven into the novels, and I’ll admit I was quite intrigued. I do like fiction that also serves as a teaching tool, but unfortunately a lot of it turns into awkward monologues about what Wicca is shoehorned into a badly written teaching scene or somesuch.

While there is some teaching dialogue scattered throughout this book, much of what each of the archetypal Twelve deities in this story–one for each of several colors and their correspondences–have to teach is demonstrated in their interactions with the main character, Caroline. For example, Caroline creates paintings of several of the deities, and one deity, Lord Blue, felt them strongly: “He felt the colors radiating from them. The hot red. The cool white. Need. Love. Lust. Pain. Joy” (p. 96). The author does an excellent job of “show, don’t tell”.

The story is nicely paced, and allows Caroline to develop not only in her relationships with the gods and others, but as an individual. At the same time, a usable spiritual path is drawn out as the story progresses; shortly after the experience with the paintings, Lord Blue tells Caroline she will bond in particular with one god and one goddess, which reflects the tendency of many pagans to have strong bonds with a few deities in particular (often along perceived lines of balance, such as between male and female energies).

In this, the book creates a mythology upon which nonfiction workbook materials have been based, and there are other novels that expand on this mythos (and I will be reviewing other books in this series). I can see this particular text being everything from a good read in and of itself, to the foundation of a pagan practitioner’s magical path based on colors and correspondences. The author’s personifications of the archetypes shows a strong connection, and I look forward to seeing more implementation of this in a practical sense.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

Daughters of the Witching Hill
Mary Sharratt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
352 pages

Note: This is a guest review by Bronwen Forbes, who graciously agreed to help me clean up my backlog of review books as I continue to slog through grad school.

In 1612, seven women and two men were tried and hanged as witches in Lancashire, England. Sharratt, who lives in Lancashire, has written an extraordinary fictional account of the lives of these alleged witches, the trial, and the times.
Cunning woman Elizabeth Demdike grew up in Catholic England, but when the Protestant Reformation makes her faith illegal, she still manages to use the prayers of her childhood to bless and cure her sick neighbors and their livestock. She is aided in her efforts by Tibb, a familiar spirit who loves her as her husband never did.

But Elizabeth’s best friend Anne is visited by a familiar spirit of her own, and chooses a different path than Elizabeth – one of curses and fear instead of healing and hope.

In time, Elizabeth’s granddaughter Alizon develops powers similar to her grandmother’s. Instead of learning to use them and consequently embracing the Old Religion (Catholicism), Alizon rejects her family heritage. When she has an unfortunate angry encounter with a peddler that leaves the man completely paralyzed on one side, charges of witchcraft are brought – not only on Alizon but also on her entire family and their closest friends. Alizon can only pray and not lose faith as the story reaches its tragic, inevitable conclusion.

Sharratt uses transcripts of the actual trials as the basis for the book, as well as stories and legends from around Lancashire. The result is an extremely well-written, highly detailed story that will effortlessly transport the reader to a time when James I was king and his book Daemonologie, was number one on the 17th century England bestseller list. It’s one thing to know the characters are, or were, real people. Sharrat brings them to full life, flaws and all, but without turning them into stereotypes. They could be your dotty grandmother, your annoying little sister, your childhood friend.

Which is not to say that, as a Pagan reader, this was a particularly easy read. Quite the opposite, in fact. New Pagans may feel outrage about the over-inflated “nine million” victims of the “Burning Times” but reading a detailed narrative of the arrest, trial and hanging of one young person has a much deeper emotional impact. I cried at the end. This book should be on every modern witch’s bookshelf.

Five gold paws out of five

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Beltane by Erin O’Riordan

Erin O’Riordan
Eternal Press
186 pages

Note: This is a guest review by Bronwen Forbes, who was nice enough to take on some of my backlog when I went on semi-hiatus.

The general rule, used by book reviewers, literary agents and editors (and I’ve done all but be a literary agent) is that if the first chapter is good, the rest of the book will be, too. Conversely, if the first chapter stinks, it’s a fair bet there’s no point in reading further.

O’Riordan’s novel Beltane is an exception to this rule. The first chapter or so is rife with poor grammar, awkward sentences and more passive-voice. However, I was stuck in a personal situation with a lot of time and not a lot of reading material available, so I plowed through.

I’m glad I did. The story (and the writing) improves over the course of the book, and I found myself actually caring about the characters and what happened to them. The novel centers around twin sisters Allie and Zen, who have been raised Pagan. The book opens with Allie’s wedding, and hints that all may not be well between the bride and groom. Zen falls for Orlando, a married man. How this all plays out is revealed the next year at Beltane, when everyone lives happily ever after.

A book titled after the major Pagan sex holiday should have a lot of sex scenes in it. If this is what the reader is looking for, he or she will not be disappointed. As someone who has written erotica professionally and has reviewed a plethora of erotic fiction in the last two years, I say the sex scenes are well-written, realistic, and move the plot forward – basically all I can ask for in an erotic book.

I wish I could say the Pagan aspects of the story were as realistic and well-done. O’Riordan presents a Pagan path that requires High Priestesses to have multiple (and huge) tattoos, be vegetarian, and abstain from alcohol at all times. To paraphrase the familiar saying, some of my best friends are High Priestesses of varying traditions, and this describes exactly none of them. The story was good, the sex was great, but the Pagan aspects of the book – with the sole exception of the Beltane ritual, which was awesome – made me, a 25-year veteran of the Pagan community mutter “Where the hell did THAT come from?” on more than one occasion.

Three and a half paws out of five.

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Echoes of Alexandria by H. Jeremiah Lewis

Echoes of Alexandria: Poems and Stories
H. Jeremiah Lewis
Bibliotheca Alexandrina and Nysa Press
260 pages

I actually read this a few weeks ago, but I’ve been so backed up with finals that I just now got the chance to sit down and write out the review. I have the Bibliotheca Alexandrina edition, but the book is now available via Nysa Press.

Whereas the last of Lewis’ books that I reviewed, Balance of the Two Lands, is nonfiction, this text includes fiction and poetry, as well as a scattering of nonfic essays, flavored heavily by the author’s Greco-Egyptian polytheistic syncreticism. He displays a great deal of versatility as a writer, because I like this book every bit as much as the last.

Much of the poetry scans like old Greek verses, addressing the gods and other beings with praise and fine description. One could simply say “Eilieithuia is associated with midwifery”, but instead Lewis writes “…lend [the expectant mother] your strength, so that she can grit her teeth/and bring her screaming baby into the world” (105). These poems would be excellent choices for ritual work, even if not in a strict Greco-Egyptian context. However, they also make for good reading as well.

The stories are of a similar quality. They make the gods seem even more real, multi-dimensional, even moreso than the original myths which often focused on the foibles and failings of divine and semi-divine beings. I think my favorite story is “The Beautiful Reunion”, which describes Hathor’s thoughts as she awaits her lover Horus, and how she feels conflicted over her attraction versus her independence. (And, of course, there’s the amusement of Horus greeting her with “Hello, sexy. I’ve missed you”.)

Overall, I found this to be a highly entertaining and enjoyable collection, and once again, Lewis does not disappoint. Highly recommended whether you want a good read for a cold night, verses for ritual use, or alternate, though faithful, interpretations of ancient myths.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Idumean Covenant by Eugene Stovall

The Idumean Covenant: A Novel of the Fall of Jerusalem
Eugene Stovall
OPC, 2009
430 pages

Note: This is a guest review by Bronwen Forbes, who graciously agreed to take on some of the extra review copies I had when I decided to go on semi-hiatus.

Guest reviewer Bronwen Forbes again with the third book that Lupa invited me to comment upon here.
The Idumean Covenant is the story of two men, Robban and Lupo who find themselves caught up in the fall of Jerusalem in the time of the Roman emperor Nero. When childhood friends Robban and Lupo run away from their powerful yet benevolent owner, they join the Sicarii, an army of Jewish bandits that are sworn to liberate Jerusalem from its Roman rulers. The two friends inadvertently find themselves making history as the son of their former owner rises in power.

I wanted to love this book, I really did. I even tried to set aside my longstanding dislike of novels that are told in third person present tense (“Josephus remains immobile, saying nothing.”). But when character point-of-view switched every few paragraphs, I quickly gave up on whose head I was supposed to be in at any given moment. Very confusing.

There is also an overabundance of telling the reader about the major historical events that frame the novel, rather than placing the characters in those events and letting the reader see them through the character’s eyes. I am not a scholar of this particular period in history (that’s my history professor husband’s job), so I was completely lost as to the deep significance of these events as they pertained to the novel. And without a good understanding of the historical events, the entire point of the story was lost to me.

For instance, the author indicates that the Sicarii raids on Roman caravans is a major plot point, yet the reader is only told about these raids in a few lecture-dreary info-dump paragraphs. Seeing the raids, being there with Robban and Lupo would have been much more effective and interesting to read. Sadly, this is just one of many examples of why “show, don’t tell” is Rule #1 for all good fiction authors.

However, the story (as opposed to the mini historic lectures) is well-written with interesting, sympathetic characters, and Stovall is quite good at illustrating little details about life in the first century c.e. Jerusalem. Perhaps someone more familiar with the history of the period would appreciate the book more.

Three pawprints out of five.

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Synarchy by D.C.S.

SVT Publishing, 2009
216 pages

Note: This is a guest review by Bronwen Forbes, who graciously agreed to take on some of the extra review copies I had when I decided to go on semi-hiatus.

The second book on the stack that Lupa gave to me to guest review was Synarchy, a novel about the end of the world – the one currently scheduled for December 21, 2012.

As with most other fin de siècle tales, Synarchy features conspiracies, counter-conspiracies, power-hungry world leaders, intrigue, and super-advanced technology working to either bring about the end of the world or prevent the end of the world – all for the good of mankind. And this is only the first book in the series!

What makes Synarchy truly stand out from the other stories in the genre are an overabundance of appallingly amateur grammar and punctuation errors, frequent awkwardly constructed sentences, and too many character-building sentences that consist solely of a description of the person’s eye color. The fact that the author’s bio in the back of the book states that she is also working on a series of short stories based on the Synarchy 2012 txt roleplay game explains the abrupt descriptions, but does not excuse them.

A little digging on the Internet proved my suspicion that this is a self-published book – the basic grammar and punctuation issues alone speak of a total lack of an editor’s eye. I am aware that a lot of good books go unread by the general public because the established publishing companies don’t want to take a chance on an unknown author and/or niche market story. For those books and authors, I am all in favor of small press and self-publishing opportunities. I am also aware that a lot of stuff the established publishing companies reject they reject due to lack of unique story and basic writing skills.

That being said, the addition of ancient aliens (including one we referred to as the Norse God Loki) is a novel and interesting addition to the fin de siècle formula. Technogeeks may love this book and cope better with the Twitter-esque characters and odd sentence structure. Apparently this luddite curmudgeon reviewer is just not the target audience.

One and a half paws out of five.

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White as Bone, Red as Blood by Cerridwen Fallingstar

White as Bone, Red as Blood (The Fox Sorceress)
Cerridwen Fallingstar
Cauldron Publications, 2009
356 pages

Seiko is a child of Inari–or, rather, daughter of one of the god’s priestesses. Orphaned at a young age, through a series of events she finds herself ensconced in the royal palace itself, aide to the empress of twelfth century Japan. As herbalist and midwife, it is her duty to help the empress conceive and give birth to the son that will secure the current royal family’s possession of the throne. Time is ticking, and rival factions gather at the gates!

It took me a few tries to get into this novel. While it is a work of fiction, it is by no means simple brain candy, and so did not come across as the sort of pablum that’s commonly found on the big box shelves. While it was a quick read, it didn’t follow many of the typical tropes and events found in much of today’s fiction. For example, there’s not the usual buildup toward one specific climax of the story. While near the end there is quite the significant event, it is merely one of several important twists and turns to the tale.

More interestingly, where many novels might focus on the military aspect of this time period, instead this one follows Seiko as she spends year after year within the palace walls, building relationships with other women who are there to find suitable husbands, and participating in exchanges of poetry among the court, an art form on many levels (not the least of which being subtle communication hidden in symbols). The author boldly tells of Seiko’s sexual exploits, with women and men alike, as well as the details of childbirths and illnesses. These things may seem somewhat sedate compared to military maneuverings, sword duels, and ambushes, but the novel holds it own even better for the lack of these.

I will admit that I was a bit disappointed with the ending, hopefully without giving away too many details. While I understand that this is the first of a series, and the author wished to leave an opening for the next book, the final chapter delving into a sudden rush of political activity after so much relative domesticity was jarring. While the political context of events throughout the book was clear, it took a backseat to seemingly everyday events, and that last bit seemed tacked on to try to move on to the next book.

The other thing that I expected was more involvement of Seiko’s role as a priestess of Inari, especially given the title of the series. This element of her life, though, seemed to be almost a background, something to be mentioned from time to time, but not really a major part of her life or the story itself. I would have liked to have seen more overt discussion about Inari’s presence in her life and how that was connected to the things we got to see a lot of, such as her sex life, and her healing abilities.

Overall, though, I really liked this book, and I’m looking forward to more from this author. If you’d like a good read that isn’t the usual mass-marketed pulp, particularly if you like interesting, well-rounded and engaging female main characters, pick this one up.

Four pawprints out of five.

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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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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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