Monday, July 20, 2020

Fantasy Book Review: The Book of Shadows by James Reese

The Book of Shadows
Author: James Reese 
Publication Date: December 3rd, 2002
Publisher: HarperTorch 
Protagonist Gender: Intersex
Sexuality: Bisexual

There is a ‘perfect’ foursome of books that have reigned over my shelves for years. While I am generally not one to indulge in rereads, these are the books that find their way back into my hands (and my imagination) every few years. Clive Barker’s Imajica is one of them; Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey is another; Raptor by Gary Jennings is the third; and The Book of Shadows by James Reese is the last.

I freely admit, the first time I tried reading this, I abandoned it. It’s heavy with purple prose, it’s slowly and awkwardly paced, and trying to discern a linear plot is almost futile. And yet, something about it . . . something about Herculine and Sebastiana . . . about Madeleine and Father Louis . . . kept tempting me back for another attempt to find my way into its pages. It’s hardly a page-turner, not the kind of book you sit down with and breeze through over a weekend, but there is something wondrous to be said about a book that was written to be savored, lingered over, appreciated, and enjoyed as the mood strikes you. It’s a book that has never taken me less than a few months to read through, but it is one that I love more with each reread.

It is Herculine who drew me to the book, and Herculine in whom I become so much more emotionally invested with each read. She begins the book as a young orphan, and we watch as she grows up in a dark and drafty convent that teaches her to be afraid of her desires, ashamed of her body. Bereft of even the most basic compassion and understanding, she is left to struggle through shocking revelations about herself, coming to know herself as a witch and a hermaphrodite (intersex) through blood and confusion before being whisked away by a witch, a demon, an incubus, and a bloody ghost who lead her in the magical, mystical, journey towards her own erotic maturity. I loved how Reese dealt with first revealing and then exploring her gender, making it something substantial and significant, but never sensationalizing it. The way he bookends her blossoming with the awkward, taboo dabbling with another student in the convent early in the book against the more mature, compassionate affections of a professional lady late in the book is utterly beautiful in what it has to say about self-acceptance and empowerment.

This is a story both Gothic and sensual, blasphemous and erotic, a book that has been regularly compared to Anne Rice, but which is really more akin to Clive Barker. Like Rice, Reese deals with heavy themes of witchcraft and mythology, but like Barker he substitutes spirit and spirituality for the trappings and hypocrisy of Christianity. Yes, it meanders between subjects and often loses itself to longer and more frequent flashbacks, but once you begin to see the connections, once you realize how and why Herculine’s story is tied as much to Madeleine as Sebastiana – all three of them tied by tides of blood – the beauty of Reese’s intricate narrative weaves become apparent.

The Book of Shadows is a book that demands a lot of the reader, requiring an open mind as well as an open heart. It challenges our assumptions about faith and humanity as much as it does our expectations of narrative prose, and it asks us to be sympathetic not just to those ostracized from polite society but those damned by it as well. After years of scouring used bookstores I finally have copies of The Book of Spirits and The Witchery on my shelf, so the next time Herculine calls to me, it will be to continue her journey not begin it again.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀  

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