Posted in [fiction reviews]

[Fiction Review] “Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse

Full Title: Black Sun (Between Earth and Sky #1)
Author: Rebecca Roanhorse
Published: October 2020 by Gallery / Saga Press
Genres: Fiction, Epic Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Native American Literature, LGBTQ Fantasy
Edition Details: 464 pages, trade paperback
Source: Advanced Reader’s Edition won via Goodreads Giveaway
Rating: {5/5 stars}

This review is spoiler free. No details will be shared from the storyline itself that aren’t available or inferred from the book jacket and online descriptions.

First Glance

I enter giveaways on Goodreads if the book sounds like something I might read. In the case of this book, the description had me entering to win in the first sentence:

From the New York Times bestselling author of Star Wars: Resistance Reborn comes the first book in the Between Earth and Sky trilogy, inspired by the civilizations of the Pre-Columbian Americas and woven into a tale of celestial prophecies, political intrigue, and forbidden magic.

I’m a sucker for any story based in mythology, but I particularly enjoy magical worlds reimagining unfamiliar cultures. In her acknowledgements and credits at the end of the book, the author points out how often “epic fantasy” only seems to apply to European-flavored stories. I agree, which is why I often seek out those written in different lands.

Positive Bits

The world we’re brought into is beautiful and deadly. Isn’t that the best kind? We visit a land with a holy city run by Priests of the non-Christian variety, as well as wild seas and a crescent coast full of different peoples and cultures. Even without visiting some of the locations mentioned by characters, we’re given enough details to have a taste of their individual quirks. The worldbuilding was done skillfully enough that I never had a moment where I fell out of the story due to confusion over a custom or description.

As a queer woman, I greatly appreciated the fact that LGBTQ folks exist throughout the story without being the story. Representation is important, and I love a good queer-focused story as much as the next person, but the best kinds of representation are when being queer is treated the same as being short or tall – as in, it’s natural and a part of some characters’ stories without being the entirety of their plotline. Also, there’s a nonbinary person throughout this first book who uses the pronouns xe/xir, and I found that inclusion to be done skillfully enough to explain and then move us along to the actual reason xe was introduced.

Trilogies by their very nature have to end unfinished, but there’s a skill needed to leave us wanting more without leaving us at a confusing cliffhanger. This book handles that balance well, leaving us with just enough closure to be satisfied while maintaining enough loose threads to keep weaving the story in the next book. The specific characters who end up together at the end due to circumstance definitely had me wishing for more.

Less Enjoyable Bits

Sometimes, I find details I dislike that are important to the story. I think that might be the case here. For example, one character struggles with alcoholism or at least regularly uses alcohol to seek oblivion, and there’s a decent portion of the story where it’s not given context. It’s just a vice they have, and it gets them tossed in jail (to have them meet up with other important characters, of course). Much later, we learn a few details about their past that hint at why they drink so often, but it’s not particularly satisfying. Then again, maybe any family or personal experience with alcoholism or alcoholics makes this plotline hit different?

We’re given hints of each main character’s past, but sometimes it’s not balanced in the first book of a trilogy like this. While I became thoroughly invested in each of the characters as they came across the page, it disappointed me that we didn’t get more information on the Teek. Considering how their people and culture play into the first book’s story, I would’ve expected to hear more about them than a passing mention. The story in book one still makes sense without those details, but it might’ve been enriched with more of them included.

My only other complaint is on the magic system(s) used in this world. I enjoy fantasy worlds where magic is standard, especially if there are different kinds based on culture or class. That said, this book didn’t flesh out the magic existing in their society. We get hints here and there for plot purposes, but there’s never a really good explanation of what is and isn’t possible with magic (or how). Again, this might be a trilogy issue rather than an issue with this book directly. I can only wait and see in book two.

Tidbits Worth Repeating

She was only ten, then, her destiny far from decided. She had not yet learned that she was poor and that people like her only went to the celestial tower as servants, or that once you were poor, people hated you for it even when you weren’t poor anymore.

“Villain,” he mouthed, liking the sound of it, the weight of the word on his bloodied lip. If protecting his crows made him a villain, then a villain he would be.

Even when armed with blade and bow, even with an army of a thousand at her command, a spearmaiden’s greatest weapon is her tongue.

Is it worth the coin?

Yes – if you enjoy reading fantasy based in non-European cultures, this book is a great add to your collection. Also, the queer representation is woven throughout the story, so that’s a major bonus!

Posted in [witchy reviews]

[Witchy Review] “The Complete Book of Moon Spells” by Michael Herkes

Full Title: The Complete Book of Moon Spells: Rituals, Practices, and Potions for Abundance
Author: Michael Herkes
Published: July 2020 by Rockridge Press
Genres: Nonfiction, Magic Studies, Witchcraft, Spirituality, Moon Magic, Goddess Worship
Edition Details: 218 pages, trade paperback
Source: Won via Instagram Giveaway
Rating: {4.5/5 stars}

First Glance

I won this book from an Instagram giveaway hosted by @fatfeministwitch (Paige Vanderbeck) and @the.glam.witch (Michael Herkes) in July. They asked for affirmations based on a moon phase prompt, and mine was “I am a child of the universe, my bones and blood are stardust!” I’ll admit that I hadn’t run across Michael’s Instagram prior to the giveaway, but his posts are always colorful and inspirational.

Positive Bits

Right off the bat, I was impressed and excited by the book’s plan to break down the lunar cycle into eight different phases instead of the standard four. Even moon-focused books often direct your energies to the New and Full Moons, with basic details on the differences between waning and waxing moon energies. Here, we get spells and rituals designed for all phases of the moon, taking us deeper into the practice of lunar magic.

Each section starts with a journaling prompt, helping you to form your magical intentions before you start working your magic. I think this provides real guidance for working through your magical goals with focus, rather than a complete set-it-and-forget-it approach. Also, your journaled notes will be there later for reference, so you can look back and see what works for you personally. As someone who struggles to journal regularly, I think these prompts are pure gold! They give just enough of a push to guide me into writing down my thoughts throughout the lunar cycle.

The layout of this book is perfect for active use! Each ritual and spell only covers two pages, facing each out. That means you could prop it open on your altar and work from the pages without having to flip back and forth for details. It prevents you from feeling overwhelmed by an ungainly mess of ritual instructions, which is often a problem with pre-made rituals. All in all, the aesthetics and functionality of this book put it high on my resource list. Rockridge Press once again used colors and formatting choices to enhance the book’s message, and I’m starting to think they’re a publisher to keep an eye on.

Less Enjoyable Bits

I get a little disappointed when anyone shortcuts their ritual closing process. The ritual outline for starting your magic is nicely detailed, from casting circle to calling quarters to raising energy. But when we’re all done, the closing of the circle turns into a quick description of giving thanks. I feel like you need to either be general in your instructions for both calling and releasing the elements, or you need to include full descriptions for each piece of their participation. It’s a pet peeve I notice in a lot of pre-made ritual descriptions including the processes used by my old coven, so it’s not a deal breaker. It’s just frustrating.

There are a few times that random ceremonial or hoodoo magic practices are pulled in without explanation, but this is the nature of being a witch outside of a standardized path. I’d likely research symbols and actions with more detail if they weren’t familiar to my personal practices, so this didn’t make any spells or rituals stand out as malformed. Instead, I reread the spells that had these kinds of details and looked for the why.

Every witch is different, and so are our ethics. That said, I took issue with one particular spell in this book. In a spell for strengthening an existing relationship, we’re told that hair is the easiest biological bit to retrieve from your partner without being noticed. However, if you’re in a healthy relationship that you simply wish to enhance, I would think you could safely ask for permission to use their hair instead of sneaking around. Call me old fashioned, but that doesn’t sound like a relationship with open and honest communication. I recognize, though, that this is my personal ethical approach to magic that directly includes another person.

Tidbits Worth Repeating

The universe does not operate on our sense of time. Spellcasting is not a fast-food spiritual practice. – page 19

Not everything goes the way you think it will. Sometimes life takes a sharp turn off course, and you either back up and get back on the road or change course completely. Regardless of which way you go, I’ve learned it’s best to just enjoy the scenery of whatever detour you take. – page 88

All obstacles present new experiences for us to learn and grow from. It is through embracing these hardships that we learn just how strong we are. – page 144

Is it worth the coin?

Yes – this book would be a good resource for someone just starting their lunar practice, because it strikes a balance between simplicity and focus. For those not new to their path, the spells can provide a shot of inspiration to revive and rejuvenate your moon magic.

Posted in [witchy reviews]

[Witchy Review] “The Grimoire Journal” by Paige Vanderbeck

Full Title: The Grimoire Journal: A Place to Record Spells, Rituals, Recipes, and More
Author: Paige Vanderbeck
Published: July 2020 by Rockridge Press
Genres: Nonfiction, Wicca, Magic Studies, Witchcraft, Spirituality, Journal
Edition Details: 158 pages, trade paperback
Source: Won via Instagram Giveaway
Rating: {5/5 stars}

First Glance

I won this book from an Instagram giveaway hosted by @fatfeministwitch (Paige Vanderbeck) and @the.glam.witch (Michael Herkes) in July. They asked for affirmations based on one of the prompts in this book, and mine was “I am a child of the universe, my bones and blood are stardust!”

Positive Bits

I need other publishers to step up their game! The aesthetics of this journal and the other books I’ve received from them are literally magical. We get colors and artwork scattered throughout the book, lending inspiration to the reader on every page. Journals and prompt books can come across as plain or even dull, especially when the majority of a page is full of straight lines for us to write. In this journal, we get the expected lines to fill in with our thoughts, but every single page has borders with color and symbols to tickle your fancy. The overall effect of this layout is a feeling of focused creativity.

Of course, the content itself is more important that the appearance. For my first read-through, I chose not to actually perform any of the writing activities or rituals while reviewing the full picture. Yet I found myself brainstorming page after page, staring off into space while I considered the prompt or spell worksheet at hand. As someone who’s been struggling with a witchy listlessness for some time now, it amazed me to feel so focused on each idea the journal presented. Not every spell suggestion fit my needs, but enough of them did to make the collection useful to any witch who might be looking for some inspiration.

There’s also a beauty in using a journal with prompts like this completely out of order. The topics are divided into basic sections: Summon Your Spells, Record Your Rituals, Relish Your Recipes, and Make Your Magic. What this really means is that there are prompts for spells, a review of large rituals celebrating the year, some recipes to craft around the kitchen, and a combination of various magical tools. You can work to create your own magical oil recipe, then turn around and use that for a prompted spell for protection. I’d actually recommend jotting down the page numbers of incorporated items like the oil recipe on any other pages it appears in, just to make finding your recipe easily when the time comes. All in all, the ties between items are loose enough that there’s no need to move chronologically through the exercises in order to gain their benefits.

Less Enjoyable Bits

This journal may not do much for a brand new witch. Without some basic background knowledge of various topics (elements, herbs, colors, crystals, and so forth), the prompts may come across as a bit overwhelming. However, some patience and the use of a couple outside resources could overcome this issue.

In a completely personal preference, I wish this journal was bound in a spiral. As a lefty in particular, I don’t enjoy the feeling of resistance that the left side of the book applies to your hand as you write in a bound book. That’s why my own active grimoire is a spiral journal instead, because it can truly lay flat. To be fair, though, I’m not sure that many publishers have the equipment (or desire) to bind books in anything other than traditional methods.

More prompts related to personal associations would’ve been wonderful. We get into some basics throughout the journal, but we didn’t dive into the elements or moon phases as they relate to us as individuals. Considering how different my relationship with the elements has been based on location (living in Texas versus living in the Pacific Northwest), that would’ve been an interesting direction to explore together.

Tidbits Worth Repeating

Magic isn’t something purely outside of ourselves; it’s equally pulled from within. We find it in our memories, feelings, and relationships, and our inner voice weaves this magic into the fabric of who we are and how we see ourselves. – page xi

The act of preparing food, for others or yourself, is inherently imbued with the energies of love, care, and healing. – page 70

The flame of your candle can release your wishes out into the universe, attract blessings and spirits with its warm light, and bring psychic revelations through smoke and wax. – page 102

Is it worth the coin?

Yes – particularly if you need some inspiration to get your magical creativity flowing. The variety of topics touched by this journal is like the rainbow of light a prism casts onto the walls as the sun hits – there’s a bit of every color mixed in!