Nine Layers of Sky (novel) – review

The first novel you read by an author will inevitably colour your relationship with their works.  Like a first kiss, you are full of hopes and expectations of pleasures to come.  Often that first book is a disappointment, but occasionally you are lifted by the imagination and words of the author and transported to the world they have created.

And so I came to Nine Layers of Sky by Liz Williams, and found myself enjoying a tremendously good and engaging story.  A modern Science Fiction novel set in the crumbling Soviet Union, which blends fantasy, myth and plausibility to offer an excellent journey of discovery and redemption.

In true Russian style there is a wonderfully flawed hero, 800 year old Ilya, who cannot die and who copes with existence through heroin and alcohol, as well as a fallen heroine, Elena, who must move beyond the confines of her rational, scientific world, and of course, the Rusalki.

The whole story hinges on the connection between dreams and other dimensions, and at times I felt there were hints of a worthy homage to the Strugatsky brothers in the plot.  This is a story which crosses genres, between fantasy, SF, and road trip, without faltering or taking a wrong step.  The best novel I have read for some time and well worth the time – read it!

Spiritus – review (magical fiction)

Imagine someone had taken D.H. Lawrence’s poem The Ship of Death, fed it some psychedelic drugs, and then introduced it to the Western Mystery Tradition and turned it into a story. The end result could be Spiritus by Kala Trobe, a phantasmagorical journey through hadean and empyrean realms.
I really enjoyed this novel, which combines a rich narrative style with a plot which twists and turns like an eel on heat. There are layers of symbolism woven into the text, with the result that any reader will enjoy it, but the greater the occult knowledge of the reader, the more they will spot in subtleties of description and deed. The author’s own wealth of experience really shines through in this, both as an accomplished writer and as someone with a thorough grounding in the traditions of magic and myth.
If you haven’t encountered Kala Trobe’s fiction before, this book should be on your reading list – it is a dazzling combination of mythic themes combined in personal journeys which cross, skew and diverge for the characters of the book. I have deliberately shied away from describing the plot because I feel that you need to approach this book without any preconceptions. Read, enjoy, digest and contemplate!

Stargazer – review (magical fiction)

If you like vampire novels which actually question preconceptions and push the boundaries rather than simply regurgitate the standard formula, then you will love Stargazer. As I read through the story, it brought a number of other works to mind, but in a comparative manner as I noticed similarities in richness of language or challenging the genre. Thus on one level Stargazer made me think of Colin Wilson’s Space Vampires and A.E. Van Vogt’s Supermind as all being works which bring innovation and then twist it on its head in places to spin the plot into dark and unexpected complexities. On another level Connor has captured the atmospheric detail found in classic vampire masterpieces like Freda Warrington’s Taste of Blood Wine series, and the hero-antihero angst of the lead characters found in Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series.

However, to the details of the book itself – it is a book which moves at a good speed throughout, with no lapses in pace or excitement, and yet still manages to reach a breakneck climax. Miguel Connor has created a new vampire antihero in Byron who goes beyond the ‘vampire with a soul’ characters found in contemporary television series. Instead Byron is the best of antiheroes – with a huge capacity for selfless action and a dark past which lurks like an iceberg through the book, slowly surfacing until his collision with the powers that be in the climax.

The idea of a post-apocalyptic world created by vampires, now calling themselves stargazers, is indicative of the intelligent use of the genre the author has demonstrated, with layers of symbolism throughout the work awaiting discovery by those interested in spirituality and Gnostic symbolism. This is definitely a must-read book which stands out as one of the best vampire novels I have yet read, and I am eagerly awaiting the sequel, Heretic.

An Ogham Wood – review (magical fiction)

I love good magical fiction, though there are not very many contemporary writers who produce it. Authors such as Charles deLint, Neil Gaiman, Terri Windling and Patricia Geary stand out from the crowd through their innovative but believable storytelling. And now another name joins them – Cliff Seruntine. Cliff’s first novel, An Ogham Wood (also available on Amazon Kindle) , is a delightful read which builds up slowly, gathering momentum to an epic climax, like a storm in all its glory – wind, rain, thunder and lightning, but for the inner senses of the mind.

The level of detail and loving craft found in the fairy folk in this story is an absolute joy, bringing Celtic folklore to life in a vivid picture of country life largely lost in the modern western world. Although the story is complete in itself, there are enough tales of past glories and tragedies feeding into the weave of the story to allow for any number of sequels and prequels. The fabulous cover by Marc Potts draws the eye and hints at the other realms to be explored within.

The author’s own experience and expertise show through in the flawed hero, Sweyn deSauld, both of sailing and as a successful psychologist. Another reviewer astutely pointed out that this is a story told by a man from a man’s perspective, a definite bonus in this genre where the hero’s perspective is often neglected or disregarded. A line from a song by Canadian band Martha and the Muffins comes to mind with this story – “I think of your past like broken glass, the people who are pieces I still meet”. For Sweyn to step back from the brink to sanity, he has to find and bring together the right broken pieces, and his journey to do so is in the style of epics from days gone by.

For me, An Ogham Wood is the most enjoyable fantasy read I have had for a long time, and in a sign of its quality, leaves me wanting to read the following volumes the author has promised.

The Red Church – review

When most of the books you read are for research, it is always a pleasure to read a good book which increases your knowledge of an associated subject which you have not had time to study. Chris Bilardi’s The Red Church is an excellent example of this. Subtitled “The Art of Pennsylvania German Braucherei”, this book is a fascinating study of Pow Wow, the American Christian folk magic which grew from German roots.

The first part of the book provides a detailed analysis of the different European (predominantly German) religious movements which fed into the Braucherei, setting the scene and providing the provenance for the material. The historical analysis is a vital part of providing the context for magical systems, so it was a pleasure to see such a through treatise which covered all the ground whilst holding the reader’s interest.

As a tradition which draws on the grimoires and Qabalah as well as its Biblical core, the practices are heavily religious, and Bilardi is not afraid to emphasise the importance of being a good member of the local Christian community, something which was key to magical practitioners of the grimoires, cunning-folk and other traditions as well. It is good to see the debt that the Western Esoteric Traditions owe to Christianity as one of the driving forces of modern magic being acknowledged. It has become unfortunately trendy in some areas to ‘bash’ Christianity as being anti-pagan, whilst reflecting those same prejudices, and also ignoring the fact that there is an inherent magic in the Bible and Christian practice which continues to be one of the most powerful magical currents in the world.

However this book is not purely about history and philosophy, it is also packed with numerous examples of the charms and practices of Braucherei, drawn from the old texts like The Long Lost Friend and also from practitioners, which show very effectively how quickly practices can evolve and change through personal use and experience. (As an aside, Dan Harms is working on a definitive volume on The Long Lost Friend which should be a welcome addition to this field).

All in all this is an excellent volume which should be of interest to a wide range of people, from magicians to folklorists, healers to historians, psychologists to pagans. Chris Bilardi is to be congratulated on producing such a fine work.