Afterlife by Guy Smith

Guy Smith
G3 Media, 2008
104 pages

I think I just found one of the best works of fiction I’ve been sent since I started this review blog–and I’ve reviewed everything from self-published works to mass-marketed offerings from major publishing houses. In just over 100 pages, Guy Smith managed to captivate me with a story that grabbed me more firmly than most of the novels I’ve read–and that takes talent.

What happens when you die? In Afterlife, you either go to the Light, or you hang around here if you have a compelling enough reason. The story follows one soul who had that reason, and through his eyes I got to find out the intricacies of the afterlife imagined by Smith. The nature and experience of being a ghost, the limitations being dead gives you in this world, and even pondering what the true nature of the Light in this fictional Universe is, are all explored in the context of a fast-paced, gripping plotline. Make no mistake–it’s a highly streamlined book, and every word counts for a lot. I read it in less than an hour, but it was definitely time well spent.

I think where the author has his greatest strength is in the running commentary that his first-person protagonist offers. Dialogue in general can be really tough to make believable, but Smith hits it dead-on, if you’ll forgive the pun. Not only was I emotionally engaged in the travails and experiences of a snarky dead guy, but the ending just wrenched the hell out of my heart. This writer’s good at what he does, let me tell you. (Though I’ll admit I got a little green around the gills when he described the effects of a car wreck in detail!)

If you want a brief break in your day to day routine to have a good read, or if you want something to really make you appreciate being alive, or you simply appreciate a well-written piece of fiction, then I would strongly recommend Afterlife. It has a lot going for it on multiple levels of awesome.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Darkwood by M.E. Breen

M.E. Breen
Bloomsbury, 2009
288 pages

I’m not the only geek to observe that young adult fiction has had a really good selection of fantasy and sci-fi, often better than much of what’s presented for entirely-grown-ups. This novel is a good example of that; it’s one of the best fiction reads I’ve had in q good long while (and not just because it has wolves in it!).

Annie is an orphaned girl (no relation to the 20th century comic book character) raised by her aunt and uncle (the latter of whom is no Daddy Warbucks). They live in an area where moonless darkness falls faster than anywhere else, where day turns to night in just a few heartbeats. Out in that darkness are the kinderstalk, massive black wolves that have been known to steal children away, and are the stuff of nightmares. But when her uncle sells her into slavery at a mining operation, she takes the chance to run off into that darkness.

What happens next is a wonderfully fast-paced story. Rather than wasting a lot of time on exposition, Breen does a lovely job of explaining where we are, and why it’s important, as we go there. I really enjoyed her characterization, too; a few of them might have been a little more fleshed out, but given that this is meant for a 9-12 audience, and that it’s a relatively short book, the author did about as well as anyone could, and probably much better. I know that I felt satisfied by the end.

My readers will be interested to note the interesting development of magical powers throughout the book, including a quasi-shamanic human-wolf interrelationship with a curious twist. Plus Annie has a pair of cats as familiars/guardians–what’s not to love about that? And as this is YA, this is a suitable book for youngsters and adults alike, though the latter may find it to be a particularly fast, light read.

Best of all, the ending suggests a potential continuation of the story, so here’s to a sequel! It takes quite a bit for me to latch onto a new author, but this one may just join a small group of authors whose works I look for in the future.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Ancestral Magic by Moondancer Drake

Ancestral Magic
Moondancer Drake
P.D. Publishing, 2009
176 pages

I was contacted about reviewing this book because of the theme of magic and mysticism in it (as the title suggests!). And as it’s from a small press that specializes in LGBT themes, that gave me extra incentive to want to check it out. That was a good choice on my part, because not only have I been introduced to a new publisher, but I just got done with an enjoyable read!

The three main characters throughout the book are single mother Sky, her son Drake (who happens to be blind, though this is treated realistically and respectfully throughout the book), and their friend and Sky’s former sister-in-law, Meg. The story starts out pretty quickly, with Sky receiving notice (amid financial woes) that she has inherited an estate from an aunt she never met–which is a bit of a trope, but I was willing to keep going with it. Meg is asked to go along for the move, which of course leaves things open for the crush that Meg’s had on Sky for, well–a while, anyway.

This isn’t just some instant happily-ever-after story, though. Once these three end up in Green Grove, their new home, Sky finds a potential new male suitor, Meg has to deal with her jealousy–oh, and everyone in town is magically talented. Not stage magic, but the sort with wards and healing and invisibility. It’s a rather Wiccan-flavored magic, even using common Craft phrases like “She changes everything She touches, and everything She touches changes” and “So mote it be”, which should appeal to a certain demographic. (There’s also not the sometimes-preachy “Here is what Wicca is and isn’t” dialogue that too many Wiccan-flavored novels go into–bonus!) I won’t spoil the rest of the plot for you; needless to say, it’s a good setup. (Do be aware that there is one mild, nicely-written, sex scene.)

Unfortunately, if I could find any fault in this novel, it’s the pacing. Of the three main characters, only Drake seems at all surprised the first time he’s told about magic. Meg seems to have known all along, but that’s not made very clear until later in the book, and it seems rather abrupt. I think the author could have done more background and buildup of this particular twist in the plotline and made the transition from “Magic? What’s that?” to “Wow, magic IS real!” a bit smoother. I also found the ending to be a bit deflated compared to the buildup, though it did make me happy (I got very invested in the characters–what can I say?)

That being said, it was still a great read; the author has a particularly good skill for characterization and description, and her dialogue is realistic. If the plot was a bit wanting, it was still a good story. I would definitely recommend this to my readers as a good plane ride book, a nice afternoon curl-up-and-read, or a commuting companion.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Ancestral Airs by Verda Smedley

Ancestral Airs
Verda Smedley
Dim Light Books, 2008
700 pages

As I was reading this book, I was trying to figure out where to fit it into the categories on this blog. On the one hand, it’s purportedly a reconstruction of a culture 6,000 years old; this includes extensive research into botany, mythology, history and other scholarly studies. But, when you get right down to it, it’s also a fascinating set of stories with well-developed characters, settings, and plots.

Beyond a certain point, we can really know only so much about cultures prior to written history in a region. The stories supposedly tell about the people who lived in the British Isles 6,000 years ago, well before there were any written records; while the author draws from texts about the Celts and other older cultures, these are still newer peoples than what Smedley describes. Whether the people of 4000 BC lived in ways the book described is unknown; nonetheless, the author does a lovely job of weaving together a solid description of her thoughts on the matter, and we get a good picture of what it is they did and believed.

So I chose to primarily read this for its storytelling value. Similarly to my experience of reading MZB’s The Mists of Avalon, it didn’t matter whether the story was literally true or not. I found myself sinking into a world where animism was the central belief, where the plants, animals and other denizens of nature were so important to the people that they took their names from them. I read about the rituals these people performed, as well as the participants’ feelings about them. I witnessed the interactions between individual groups of people, and how they wove into the greater overarching culture of the time. It didn’t really matter whether this was the way things “really happened”; it was a great journey anyway. Even if seen only as a novel, it’s a worthwhile read.

I can’t entirely vouch for the validity of the herbal information; the author knows more about that than I do. A lot of the information about plants peppering the stories dealt with magical uses; however, there were some medicinal uses mentioned as well. For those intrepid enough to backtrack the author’s research, there’s an appendix with the common and Latin names of all the plants (numbering in the hundreds) mentioned. Additionally, she included a thorough bibliography for further research and fact-checking.

This is a book I had to read in bits and chunks over time; at 700 pages, it’s a lot to read! The formatting left a bit to be desired, most notably the complete lack of page numbers which, in a book this length, is frustrating when trying to find where I left off, or where I found a piece of information or a snippet of story I wanted to go back to. Also, I can’t for the life of me find information about the publisher, the owner of the publishing company, or the author.

Ancestral Airs is a thoroughly enjoyable read, regardless of how much salt you choose to take the research with. Whether you choose to read it as I did, in little pieces, or simply spend several hours going from cover to cover in one fell swoop, I hope you like this unique combination of research and narrative.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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Sepulchre – Kate Mosse

Kate Mosse
Berkeley, 2007
566 pages

I’ll admit I waited until I had a significant chunk of time to start reading this hefty novel. I was surprised at how quickly I devoured it! For being well over 500 pages, Sepulchre is a quick read (relatively speaking)–but definitely not a lightweight one.

Mosse has skillfully created two parallel storylines in this book, both centered around the same small region in France. The first, set in the late 19th century, follows Leonie and her brother Anatole as they visit an aunt-by-marriage they’ve never met before, who lives in a peculiar estate in the countryside. The second, set in 2007, features Meredith, an American graduate student working on a book about Claude Debussy. Two seemingly unrelated stories, and yet Mosse manages to weave them together in a believable manner–using a deck of tarot cards.

I was a bit uneasy about the potential for a more mainstream novel to use tarot cards as a plot device in a manner that resembled an eighties horror flick. Happily, this is not the case. While there are associations with the demonic in the storyline, more is said about human nature than the supernatural in the end. Additionally, Mosse has a good understanding of the symbolism of the tarot, particularly the Major Arcana, and uses the symbolism to good end in her writing. While the story revolves around a fictional deck, she did a marvelous job of fleshing it out.

I would recommend this book to my readers, particularly (though not exclusively) tarot aficionados. It’s a great book for a long plane or train ride, or for curling up on a rainy afternoon. I found myself continually trying to find spare moments of time where I could steal a few more pages, and it definitely kept my interest all the way through. Good stuff!

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Sacred Sin – Estevan Vega

The Sacred Sin
Estevan Vega
PublishAmerica, 2007
218 pages

I’ve been enjoying going through the fiction end of my review shelf as I’m on my break between semesters, and The Sacred Sin is my latest read. The second novel published by Vega, it’s a psychological horror tale that takes an ordinary murder mystery and literally demonizes it.

Jude Foster, L.A. detective, has a lot on his plate. In addition to an unwanted replacement for his former partner (and would-be murderer), he has persistent psychological traumas stemming from the demons within–and takes on a murder case that ends up turning up the demons without as well. But how do you deal with a killer who not only takes people’s lives–but their souls as well? Not easily, and not without things getting incredibly messy.

Unlike so many characters which often seem indistinct and more than occasionally end up being confused with each other in my mind, Vega’s creations are memorable and interact in a believable manner. Jude, his main protagonist, makes an excellent focus for the story, though the scenes without him offer excellent fleshing-out of the story. Rachel Cragin, his new partner, is likable enough, though the irritation–and then later shifts in their relationship–is clear in their interactions. Together they maneuver through a world full of gritty realities and terrifying supernatural phenomena, and I kept on with the book in part because I wanted to know what happened to them next.

The ride along to the climax of this novel kept me distracted from…well…all sorts of other things I should have been doing–but it was well worth the distraction! Vega is a superb writer; his writing is descriptive enough to clearly illustrate what’s going on, but avoids being overly wordy. And his pacing is excellent; I was never bored while reading this book, and I didn’t expect the ending to go quite the way that it did. He takes a good number of liberties with occultism–but then again, it is a work of fiction.

My only real complaint with the book is the scattering of typos throughout. Granted, this happens with most publishers, but there were a few more than I normally see in a work of this length. Still, the book’s quite readable, and admittedly I tend to notice typos more than many readers.

Overall, if you’re looking for a quick but thoroughly enjoyable read, this would be a good choice. Oh, and little tidbit of trivia–the author was eighteen years old when this was published. Good work for an author that we’ll hopefully be seeing a lot more from.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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The Fires of Shalsha – John Michael Greer

The Fires of Shalsha
John Michael Greer
Starseed Publications, 2009
242 pages

I’ve always enjoyed John Michael Greer’s nonfiction writing; I’ve read several of his books, and given them all good reviews. However, it just so happens that he’s a talented fiction writer, too. The Fires of Shalsa is Greer’s first published novel, and it’s one of the better sci-fi books I’ve read in a good long while. (Small press, too, which I always appreciate.)

Greer has created a world apart from Earth, where refugees from our planet several centuries post-exodus have settled into a series of small communities held in order by six laws prohibiting undue violence and powermongering. These laws are enforced by a neutral body of warrior mystics, the Halka, and are strictly punishable by death. Despite this, someone has enabled illegal war technology and killed hundreds of people. It’s up to the Halka and their colleagues to figure out what happened–but the only witness left alive has a severe case of amnesia. How will they prevent another attack with limited information?

The storyline alone is well worth the read. However, what I really appreciate about Greer’s writing is that it’s streamlined. Some authors take pages upon pages to simply describe the world they’ve built, the cultures within it, and so forth. Greer instead manages to work small details and implications about the culture in a quickly-moving story; we’re given the six laws before the story even starts, which goes a long way in setting a foundation for understanding his world here, and all else is fleshed out in the course of the storytelling.

For example, even before the story really gets underway, one can assume that some major war or other tragedy caused the six laws to be put into place; the details about the way the communities live help to support that over time. Additionally, it’s pretty obvious that nature is very important to the people, as the way characters observe and describe the world around them, activity within it, and their thoughts on it makes frequent references to natural phenomena, from flowers to the weather. Greer didn’t have to do some long explanation about how people loved nature, and why, and how they lived in harmony. It was simply apparent in their day-to-day interactions.

Greer imbues his characters with a certain amount of psychic ability. It’s more along the lines of telepathy than, say, pyrokinesis. It’s a nice touch that doesn’t make the characters too out there, but does make for a great plot device. It’s woven well into the rest of the story, but without negating the challenges the characters face, especially with their limited mechanical technology.

This is a quick read, and yet a very rich tale, too. The twist at the end is a nice touch, though I wasn’t too surprised by the resolution that occurred after. Still, I’d definitely recommend this to any sci-fi reader, any of Greer’s fans wanting something creatively different from him, and those who may have been disappointed by the overly idealistic utopian views of Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing but liked the general concept of a back-to-nature future.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Pagan Anthology of Short Fiction – by various

The Pagan Anthology of Short Fiction
Various authors
Llewellyn Publications/PanGaia Magazine
228 pages

This is one of the cooler ideas I’ve seen come out of the pagan publishing genre in recent years. There are lots of fiction writers in the pagan community, and not a lot of venues for them to share their works–especially when compared to nonfiction writers. So I thought this was a great idea from the start. Add in that I love fiction anthologies, and this book already had a good start in my mind.

There aren’t any bad stories in this collection of thirteen. There were a few that didn’t really capture my interest, but they were still well-written, so as far as I’m concerned how good a story is really depends on what you like in a story. Here’s a sampling of my favorites out of the collection:

–“Dead and (Mostly) Gone” by Deborah Blake: this was a fantastic opener to the collection, featuring a witch who works for a police department finding missing people–who just happen to be dead. So what happens when the chief comes in with a special request? A good story, that’s what!

–“Silkie’s Diary” by A.C. Fisher Aldag: written as though by a teenaged selkie raised by humans, the voice in this story is spot-on! Teen angst mixes with supernatural occurrences and excellent descriptive talent to make this one of the most creative tales in the bunch.

–“A Nose For Magic” by Eugie Foster: this was an adorable story, and not just for the skunk familiar! One of the more unique interpretations of the witch’s familiar, and what happens when a non-magical person meets up with a witch.

–“Under a Double Rainbow” by Sophie Mouette: Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, shows up at a women’s spirituality festival. Love, healing, and a healthy dose of sex ensue. A lovely tale with just the right amount of mild erotica, and a great weaving together of several subplots.

There are nine other award-winning tales in this collection, and it’s well worth the cover price. If you want a light read that’s well above most of the fiction in print these days, and a variety of interpretations of just what “pagan fiction” is, pick up a copy of The Pagan Anthology of Short Fiction.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Drums of Legenderry by John Orlando

The Drums of Legenderry
John Orlando, 2007
154 pages

This is a peculiar little collection of stories for adolescent readers (and I mean peculiar as a very good thing!). They center around the adventures of the Rhythm Maiden, a river spirit, and her family, some of whom travel quite a ways away in their journeying. It’s a mythos created by the author, but in the grand tradition of complex mythologies that include a good deal of symbolism, as well as the ability to carry cultural values and teachings. The stories are set in a faerie-tinged fantasy world where magic is as common as the air you breathe–but has consequences as well!

The rhythm of the stories, if you will, reminds me very much of mythologies from cultures where the oral tradition is the primary form of communication. This sometimes makes them a little odd to read, particularly when it comes to the dialogue between characters. However, when read aloud, the cadence makes a lot more sense (which also makes subsequent reading better as well). While the book is meant for middle-grade readers, most of them could be told to younger children as well (there are a few with a bit of material, such as allusions to domestic abuse, that may be a bit much for the really young ones). I could see this being a neat book for a story time at pagan events–or in the pagan home with children. And, as an adult, I found the stories to be an excellent break from the more serious nonfiction reading I do for school and so forth!

I think my only real criticism of the book is that it could have used an extra pair of eyes to edit it. There are a few inconsistencies here and there–a mammoth being referred to as both he/him and it in the same paragraph, and a character’s name being spelled both Pika and Pica (a typo, perhaps?) Also, a few places the writing seemed a bit rough around the edges, even in the oral retelling, though this may be stylistic preferences on my part.

Still, I can see this being a wonderful addition to just about any pagan library, whether there are children or not. Storytellers in general may want to take a look at this text, as should those who like to receive a good story as well.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Bell, Book and Murder by Rosemary Edghill

Bell, Book and Murder: The Bast Novels
Rosemary Edghill
Forge Books, 1994
448 pages

Okay, so a lot of folks who read these reviews most likely have already read these novels at least once. I read the first one years ago, and just now got around to hunting down the omnibus edition including the entire trilogy. I enjoyed it thoroughly, so here’s my review, just in case there are pagan folk who need a good tip-off on a thoroughly wonderful piece of pagan-flavored fiction.

Bast is a thirty-something Gardnerian Wiccan in New York city. She works doing book layout as a freelancer, and has a “coffin-sized and shaped” apartment. Active in her local pagan community, she also ends up being a key figure in solving three separate murders, one per novel. Her fellow pagans and magicians are realistic, running the gamut from flakes to uber-serious ceremonialists, and all points in between. Bast herself is well-grounded and mature, but not without her flaws.

The mysteries themselves are well-paced and inventive, and while they incorporate the pagan aspects of the novels to one extent or another, it’s in a believable style. I never felt like any of the stories were strained–I think the latter two books, particularly their endings, were better than the first, but even the first was a great read.

You know all those recent novels where authors try to add information about paganism in the duration of the storyline? This is the book that they aspire to be (and only a few achieve similar quality). Instead of clumsy attempts to have a lesson on neopaganism at one point in the book, Bast does what any good writer does when introducing niche material into a storyline–she weaves it in seamlessly with the narrator’s commentary. Details on paganism are integrated fluidly along with the basics of (pre-computer) book layout, and what it’s like to live in the Big Apple. I learned a good deal about the latter two, and thought the former was quite well handled as well.

What I loved the most about her portrayal of neopaganism, though, is that never once is there anything unbelievable. There’s no Harry Potter-esque magic. There’s not even speculation in the vein of the famous British Wiccan ritual during WWII that may or may not have been actually effective (and may not even occurred for that matter). There aren’t any incarnated angels or cross-planar spirits physically materializing or voices of deities in the middle of New York. Bast does spells and rituals in the course of the novels, but none of them are shown to definitely cause anything out of the ordinary. In other words–the world of Bast could just as easily be this one.

These novels have a lot going for them–well written, excellent integration of specialized material, and believable characters and settings. If you haven’t had a chance to read them yet, they’re probably one of my most highly recommended fiction pieces on this review site to date.

Five pleased pawprints out of five.

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