Review: Blackwing by Ed McDonald

51JtoDu1KFL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_This is a book that both inspired me and broke me.

I saw a review on the British Fantasy Society site and, re-reading the blurb, was drawn in by the mention of the raven tattoo ripping itself from the protagonist’s arm to ‘deliver a desperate message’ and the concept of ‘the Misery’ (a possible reworking of the old myth of the Wasteland?).

Its protagonist is no Perceval. Ryhalt Galharrow is a Blackwing captain who, with his troops, spends most of his time hunting down dangerous enemies to the Republic in the Misery. He is magically bound to Crowfoot, one of the Nameless (one of the many paradoxes in these books is that they have names but they aren’t their real names), near-immortal wizards who side with the Republic against the Deep Kings. His tattoo, the Raven’s Mark, is Crowfoot’s means of communication.

The book is set almost a century after the devastating battle in which Nall, one of the Nameless, released the spell called ‘the Heart of the Void’ that created the Misery, fracturing the skies and all sense of direction, irreparably changing everything it did not kill. Its monsters are not of the kind you would usually find in fantasy books and here McDonald stands out by the genius of his imagination.

The most memorable, to me, are the gillings. ‘Two feet tall’ ‘naked, pot-bellied and red as a raw burn’, ‘hairless and yellow-eyed’, they are hauntingly trapped in the moment of the impact repeating the same words “seventy-three, seventy-two”, “evening, master, care for a good time?” “The roads are a mess.” Their bite numbs and paralyses meaning they can eat you alive in your sleep without you feeling a thing. There are also squeams, dulchers, ghosts playing out past events. Then there are those who serve the Deep Kings – malevolent children called Darlings with their mind-worms, huge seductresses called Brides, and the Drudge with their ‘blank noseless faces’.

At first I thought I would hate Galharrow, stereotyping him as a typical macho male. There are lots of reason to dislike him. His language is foul. He’s a perpetual drunk. He doesn’t learn from his mistakes. But as I learnt more about him and his past and what he’s hardened against I grew to sympathise with him, empathise with him, to care about him as his story unfolded beneath the broken and sobbing skies. I also felt a rapport with Nenn, his best friend, a swordswoman with a wooden nose, who equals him in battle and drinking at the bar.

Ezabeth Tanza is complex and intriguing. She’s ‘cream’ (of noble descent) yet she’s also a Spinner and uses her power to make a stand against the abuse of the Talents who are worked to death in the mills weaving phos from the three moons to power Nall’s Engine – the last defence against the armies of the Deep Kings. An old love from Galharrow’s past, she has just as many secrets, but I’d say is the stronger of the pair. I don’t usually connect with or enjoy romance, but their relationship, also one of deep friendship and sacrifice, tugged on the strings of my heart and provides the emotional core of this, at times, overwhelmingly heart-breaking book.

It’s possible to read into Blackwing analogies of nuclear disaster, environmental crisis, and capitalist exploitation. There’s a mystical depth. The Misery, with its distortions of space and time, may be seen to share parallels with the Celtic Otherworld. Yet it also works fine as a gritty well-crafted action adventure.

What inspired me and broke me was the combination of the awesome and awfulness of the setting, the intensity of the trials of the characters, and the sheer unpredictability of the plot – twisting and turning like a corvid’s dream. I’ve never read anything quite like it before and know from now on I will be measuring everything I read and write against it.

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Review: Mapping the Contours by Nimue Brown

mapping the contours by nimue brownThere’s something old about the poems in this book, a bone-deep knowing, a merging of self and land which is reflected in the cover image. It speaks of a time when the hills were the contours of giantesses, the curves of beautiful goddesses, a time that still is and is not with us now.

‘Walking myself into the landscape, and walking the landscape into myself’ is the way bard and druid author Nimue Brown describes the process behind her new poetry collection Mapping the Contours. In the poem that provides the title she says ‘Human bodies are much like landscapes.’

In ‘Raised upon these hills’, one of the most beautiful hymns to a landscape I have ever read, Nimue evokes her lifelong relationship with the Cotswold Edge:

I was raised upon these hills,
My bones are made of limestone,
Sweet Jurassic limestone,
Grown from ancient seas.
I was raised upon these hills
My body made of fossils
Where the Cotswolds meet the Severn,
And the Severn seeks the sea.

She, land, and goddess are inseparable. In ‘Seeking Goddess’ Nimue speaks of going to the forest, rooting with the boar, sleeping with the lynx, making love with the trees, becoming ivy-templed and bird-haired, sharing milk and giving birth to bees. Inseparable too are the local animals and plants: urban foxes, an otter on a bus station, wild swans over the Severn, brambles, orchids, fly agaric. And most strangely a lonely ‘telephone bird’ ‘Outside my window impersonating / A ringing phone.’

There is a lot more uncanniness in this collection encountered in both the seen and unseen worlds. Trolls long to drink ‘the elixir of your terror’ and ‘dead things’ fall from the mouths of the dark siblings of the Shining Ones. In ‘Granny’s house’ ‘All chicken magic and bones’ Baba Yaga

…bears the knife
Opening bone truths
My shoulder blades
My wings
Beauty never dared
Whilst living.

As well as engaging with folklore Nimue provides a more homely and nourishing alternative take on old British myths originating from the Dark Ages of warlords and shining-browed bards. Her cauldron does not brew potions for ‘blinding flashes or ‘burning heads’ but ‘soil food, soul food’, ‘everyday gifts’. Her thirteen treasures are not weapons but a loom, a log, a seed, a cup, a candle…

Tongue-in-cheek she speaks of becoming ‘indigenous English’, a ‘Dirty Briton’, claiming back soil and soul. This act of reclaiming forms the heart of the book. I’d recommend it to all poets, Pagans, and nature lovers as a paradigmatic record of recovering an ancient way of being that lies within our bones and the bones of the land.

You can buy Mapping the Contours HERE and read Nimue’s blog, Druid Life, HERE.

Review: The Book of Onei by Christopher Scott Thompson

The Book of Onei by Christopher Scott Thompson is ‘an antinomian dream grimoire, providing deceptive yet true information about the art of Oneiromancy or dream magic in the form of poetry, fantasy, and intentionally ambiguous instructions.’

It is narrated in the voice of a ‘dark seer’, a ‘night wanderer’ drawn to seek the wisdom of the ‘beautiful chaos’ and ‘primal darkness’ and its ‘chthonic and horrifying entities’ rather than the light. Unlike similar narratives involving journeys to otherworlds he does not go with a benevolent aim such as bringing back a dead lover or relative. Following in the footsteps of his father, who stole The Book of Onei from the Great Library, this Promethean anti-hero goes instead to steal a secret – the knowledge of how to understand the book. “Prometheus didn’t give the fire back,” he tells his wife before setting out through the door in the basement.

The main thread of the narrative is this unnamed dark seer’s journey. The rest is composed of lore from The Book of Onei. This includes stories which take the form of powerful parables in a similar strain to Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathrustra, riddling poems, and lists of the Powers of Onei and how they might be invoked or exorcised through prayers, offerings, charms, symbols, and rituals.

The visionary scope of this book is immense and could only have been channelled from the depths of dream. One of the most striking characters is the prophet Eyes For Flowers, one of the Sons of Crow, who has huge sunflowers spilling through the eye-holes of his crow-mask. This image and the depiction of demons transformed into angels who ‘rose up from the husks of their bodies as burning wheels, as gears and eyes and wings’ put me in mind of the raw genius of Blake and Ted Hughes.

There is also a lot of animistic wonder. I was mesmerised by the song of the spider who sung to the Fool who would become Three-Times Exiled in his cage and by the words of the swaying serpent who teaches that ‘the Chaos Ocean is not a place you can walk to’ but lies ‘in the crevices between moments.’

As you might have guessed this book is packed with paradoxes. The places and powers in the Book of Onei may not exist in Onei itself and it remains unclear whether there is ‘a secret to be uncovered, or only lies within lies.’ The only way to discover the truth is ‘to go there in person.’ Deep contrary wisdom is conveyed about travelling otherworlds, drawn from fairylore, grimoires, alchemy, demonology, and, forthmost from the author’s experiences as a dreamwalker and visionary.

As a kindred spirit drawn to the beauty of the darkness I fell in love with The Book of Onei when it first started out as a series of blog posts and was delighted to hear it has been published in book form. When I read it in full I was not disappointed. It is a valuable contribution to visionary literature and dark mysticism that deserves to be preserved for longevity. Although not explicitly political it is a work that provides gnosis and guidance for facing dark truths in troubled times.

I would recommend it to anyone who has heard the call of the Veiled One who stirs her ‘cauldron made of swirling stars and galaxies’ or been haunted by the ‘eerie, dreadful dead’ of the Host. I don’t want to give away how it ends, only that it begs a follow up – more!!!

The Book of Onei can be purchased HERE.

Review: Deathwalking edited by Laura Perry

Deathwalking: Helping Them Cross the Bridge is a short book (88 pages) in the Moon Books Shaman Pathways series. It is edited by Pagan author and artist Laura Perry and features a dozen essays from Pagans and shamanic practitioners from various traditions and backgrounds.

Its focus is the little known or spoken about practice of deathwalking, or pyschopomping, which Laura explains is ‘helping the helping the spirits of the deceased move on from this world to the next.’

This interested me because, as a devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, a god who guides the dead to the Annwn (the Brythonic Otherworld) I have been called on to retell the stories of the dead and to act as a guide on a couple of occasions, and wondered if I will be led to work more deeply in this area in the future.

If so, what might I expect? What guidance might someone new to psychopomping gain from this book?

As a relative newcomer to this area I found some of the essays easier to relate to than others. Perhaps because she is also an awenydd rooted in the Brythonic tradition, Elen Sentier’s spoke to me most. Her descriptions of washing the bodies of the dead, laid out on a kitchen table, with elder vinegar and a smoke wash from hedgerow herbs seemed so earthy and natural. Even in more difficult matters like helping a dead man pass by acting as a medium between him and his friend who killed him, and aiding her stepmother’s passing with thirteen friends, her words made intuitive sense.

Lucy Starza’s contribution on encountering Death as a ‘huge black bird’ who arrived to take a friend who had died of cardiac arrest in a nightclub, and to whom she prayed to aid the passing of her father, was moving and resonated deeply with my intuitions about birds as psychopomps.

I thought Veela Keelakantan and Danu Forest provided sound accounts of the myths and rites surrounding death in the Hindu and Celtic traditions. Laura Perry’s experiences of being opened to psychopomping as a child and Ilmelda Almqvist’s work with child psychopomps were illuminating.

The essays about more advanced shamanic techniques were challenging and real eye-openers. Midwife to the dead, Kenn Day, provides a poignant account of tracking down the ancestors of a dying woman who had lost her connection with them and reuniting her with her grandmother after death. Yvonne Ryves shares her experiences of performing ‘entity removals’: removing lost spirits who have attached themselves to clients through negotiating with them and providing them with a vessel.

In ‘Deathwalking with Reluctant Spirits’ Dorothy Abrams speaks of flying in spirit to Aleppo (presumably from her home in New York) to aid the passing of sixteen boys and their Imam who were killed by a bomb. I had always assumed shamanic practitoners serve mainly within their locality and tradition so this surprised me and raised questions about how far one’s responsibilities extend.

The piece I found it hardest to engage with was ‘Dealing with Misplaced Energy’ by Janet Elizabeth Gale. Some of the language was poorly chosen. For example ghosts are referred to as ‘aberrations’. I felt it could have benefited from an introductory discussion for beginners on how to discern when it is right to clear a place or a move a spirit on and when it best to leave them alone. It seemed implicit that one should follow the guidance of one’s spirits but, for me, this wasn’t made explicit enough.

Deathwalking is an eye-opening collection and I commend the contributors for having the courage to share their experiences of helping the dead to pass. Many are difficult and intimate and challenge the worldviews of secular society and the Abrahamic faiths by evidencing communications with spirits.

It has given me a clearer idea of what it is like to care for the dying and guide the dead. As the first book on this topic I would recommend it as a valuable resource for practicing psychopomps, those who are drawn to the practice, and any open-minded person with an interest in death and what lies beyond.

Deathwalking is available from Moon Books HERE.

Review: Silver Branch by Kevan Manwaring

Silver BranchSilver Branch is a collection of poetry by Kevan Manwaring charting 25 years of dedication to the bardic path. It brings together poems from over a dozen collections selected on the basis that Kevan has performed them in public from memory or they lend themselves to recitation.

The book opens with ‘Speak Like Rain: Letters to a Young Bard’. These letters were ‘inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous sequence to the young poet Franz Xaver Kappus’. Kevan adopts the persona of Tallyessin (Taliesin) speaking to his former self, Gwion Bach.

Taliesin, the shining-browed bard of inspired poetry in the Brythonic tradition, is central to Kevan’s work. Taliesin is not just a role model. Like the bards of ancient Britain Kevan not only seeks inspiration from Taliesin but channels his presence. He describes how this has transformed his performance:

‘When I first started to work with the master bard, Taliesin Penbierdd, I found my performance transformed: I became more fluid, as if mirroring the metamorphoses he went through. His creation myth was the first story I told unscripted at a party – and it was a success. After that, I identified strongly with him; he became a projected higher self. By ‘channelling’ him, I became a more confident performer.’

The letters are packed with worthwhile advice for aspiring bards. As an awenydd I was moved by Kevan’s metaphor of being possessed by the awen as the divine speaking ‘through you, like rain from heaven’. I also appreciated the emphasis on finding time for silence to hear ‘the voice of the universe’ and the need for good craftmanship, which he sums up perfectly with the Welsh phrase ‘Cerdd dafod’, ‘tongue music’. The single most important point, for me, was to ‘speak your truth, from the heart.’

Unsurprisingly, many of the poems in the collection are based around Taliesin’s stories. ‘The Taliesin Soliloquies’ is a sequence exploring the ‘The Story of Taliesin’ from various perspectives. Here Kevan gives voice not only to Gwion/Taliesin but also to Ceridwen, Afagddu, and others.

Kevan is at his finest in his depiction of Ceridwen chasing Gwion after he has received Afagddu’s awen in ‘a moment’s lapse, / a sudden splash’ . He masterfully captures the being of each animal from Gwion as a hare ‘long ears swept back, / best paws forward. Rabbit foot, bring me luck’ to Ceridwen as a black hen, ‘There is no hiding from me / I am the destroyer of worlds… I will find your weakest point / and tear you apart.’ Gwion is reborn as Taliesin from Ceridwen’s womb after she has eaten him, ‘my brow, my beacon, / a frail light in the vastness, / a candle in the storm’ – an enticing image.

Kevan’s representation of Afagddu is also evocative:

Shadow is my skin;
I am night-in-the-day,
Dusk-lurker,
Gloom-hair.
I bear my own pall –
my footprints
a puddle of inky peat.
Black-plumed,
be-draggled,
Ceridwen’s sea-crow,
first-born forgotten.

Afagddu and Morda give voice to the consequences of Gwion receiving the awen. ‘The cauldron split, its hot broth spilt, / my awen wasted, in a flash.’ ‘The cauldron cracked… the contents poured into Gwyddno’s stream… the crooked one… poked my eye out.’ The culprit, characteristically, shows no remorse.

Followers of this blog will know I have mixed feelings about Taliesin – I admire his poetry but do not condone his taking of the awen* or his assaults on Annwn and its inhabitants. Thus I found myself wincing when I read ‘Prydwen and the Cauldron’, Kevan’s retelling of Arthur’s raid on Annwn to steal the cauldron, written in the voice of ‘Pendragon’s Penbeirdd’. Here the ‘bright’ ‘oak-hearted king’ fights against ‘shadow winged nightmares’ and wins the cauldron at the price of returning to Avalon to become Annwn’s next guardian. The ending is a unique twist and it was good to see the price emphasised, but I struggled with the uncritical representation of the warmongering Arthur as a tragic hero.

The Taliesin poems show that bardic poetry can be put into the service of good and ill. You’ll be relieved to hear that, unlike Taliesin, Kevan himself does not support war and raiding other worlds. He is, in fact, critical of war, along with environmental and social injustice, and uses his awen to speak out against these ills. ‘The Child of Everything’ and ‘Bio*Wolf’ are critiques of genetic engineering. The poems in ‘The Love of the Land’ sing the sorrows of a wounded land where dragons fight and ‘Mad Kings rule’ along with the joys of moments of poise and deep peace. Other poems give voice to the wealth of myths and folklore of the Celtic pagan traditions. The Birds of Rhiannon sing, Manawydan appears as an ‘ancestral mariner’ and Brigid is invoked at her ‘forge of words’.

I’d recommend Silver Branch to all who are interested in the bardic tradition as a testimony to the journey of a true bard who has followed his heart. Kevan’s success as a performance poet shows that, even in a world opposed to spirituality wherein poetry is undervalued, it is possible to attain one’s dreams.

Read this book, be inspired by it, but don’t forget about Afagddu ‘eyes green in the edges of the world / waiting’.

You can buy a copy of Silver Branch from Awen Publications HERE.

*There are two different versions of this story. In Peniarth MS III, the text Kevan draws on, Gwion receives the awen by accident. In the earliest version, which is found in Elis Grufudd’s Chronicle of the History of the World, Gwion purposefully shoves Afagddu out of the way and steals it for himself.

Review: Witches in a Crumbling Empire by Rhyd Wildermuth

EMPIRE+promoWitches in a Crumbling Empire is a book of Pagan political theory by Rhyd Wildermuth, and it’s more than that. Its words of mystical prose are a vision and a spell to win back our relationship with the land and the magic at the heart of Paganism, which we lost between ‘the factory floor and the witch’s stake’.

Rhyd speaks of those who go into the Abyss. Those who go ‘to find out if there is meaning… some go mad. And some never return. And some… come back wielding light against the darkness… a fire that can reforge the world.’ Those who are branded heretics, made outcasts. Rhyd is one of those people.

Against the horrors of the crumbling Empire and a resistance made impotent by divisions between Left and Right and social identity Rhyd carries a torch that illuminates, unveils, and shines as a beacon to unite Pagans against ‘the one thing’ that is the source of environmental and political injustice: Capitalism.

For Capitalism ‘has the power to affect every single person, destroy every life and make every person suffer. White and Black, First Nations and Asian, European and African, male and female, trans and cis, able and disabled – each suffers under this thing.’

Rhyd, of course, calls for revolt. He notes that witchcraft (and this applies more widely to Paganism) can be political or anti-political, but never apolitical, as we’re all political subjects in countries dominated by political structures – private property, workplaces, shops; governments and police to maintain law and order. When these ‘reproduce themselves within you… You become Empire.’

Against our becoming of Empire, against our internalisation of its ‘thou cannots’, he opposes ‘thou wilt’. ‘When we are told we cannot grow our own food, we must grow our own food. When we are told we cannot survive without money, we must survive without money. When we are told we cannot be safe without the police, we must become safe without the police.’

No mean feat, but for inspiration we can turn to the revolutionary ancestors: to the Luddites, the Rebeccas, the Molly Maguires. To the gods: to ‘the Raven King, Brighid, or Dionysus’ and of course that ‘spirit’, ‘king’, ‘or general’, the eponymous Ludd himself (who may be a modern appearance of the ancient god Lludd/Nudd/Nodens) as the leader of ‘a new Luddite Revolution’.

Such a revolt aims to win back the land from Capitalism and the magic at the heart of witchcraft and every Pagan path. Not the magic of on-line courses, of vending tables at conferences, oils and candles from Etsy, but the magic ‘which has always been you, you and the world around you… the breathing forests, the scream of the owl and raven as you wander alone through darkness.’

This magic also lies beyond the limitations of the the world as we know it in what Rhyd refers to as ‘the World Without Forms’. The fathomlessness of the Abyss into which we must walk and return with new myths to win back our mythic power and territory from Fascism.

This book will probably not be an easy read whatever your Pagan or political persuasion. Rhyd is critical of all and of himself too. Yet the fire that burns also lights and brings hope. In the unveiling of uncomfortable truths, in the facing of the death of Empire and the resistance going down with it, it shows how we might learn to love and dance in the flames of new worlds being forged and live anew.

Witches in a Crumbling Empire can be purchased HERE.

Review: A Dance with Hermes by Lindsay Clarke

A Dance with HermesA Dance with Hermes is the first full poetry collection by the British novelist Lindsay Clarke. Serving as a messenger for Hermes, the winged-footed messenger god of ancient Greece, Clarke brings his myths to life in the twenty-first century in this series of masterfully crafted verses.

In his introduction, ‘A Note at the Threshold’, Clarke writes about his creative process. As a poet and polytheist I found this fascinating. The book began life as a ‘hermaion’: a ‘windfall’ or ‘god-send’ beginning with a single poem called ‘Koinos Hermes’ based on the presiding presence of Hermes in the life of his friend, John Moat. I was fascinated by this sense of gifting.

Most of the poems consist of four quatrains steering between ‘half-rhymes to suggest the elusive nature of the god’ and ‘full rhymes echoing on his sudden presence.’ Cleverly they shift between ABAB and ABBA rhymes echoing the dancing beat of Hermes’ winged feet. I admired the way Clarke allowed Hermes to lead the dance rather than attempting to force his message into a predetermined structure. Fittingly the verses accumulated like ‘hermae’ (cairns).

Clarke’s dance with Hermes begins with his conception by ‘Zeus Almighty, randy top Olympian… making secret love / to shy-eyed Maia in her mountain cave’ and leads us through his stories. I particularly enjoyed the poems evoking Hermes’ presence in the modern world.

‘Tortoise Song’ retells Hermes’ invention of the lyre. With ‘No iPods yet, no Spotify’, Hermes picks up a ‘tortoise nibbling at the grass’, ‘scoops the creature out’, makes his ‘Stratocaster’ and ‘strikes / a chord, sets generations dancing at the trick’.

In ‘He Honours the Hospitable’, which is based on ‘Baukis and Philemon’, Hermes is described as ‘a god of wayfarers’ knowing the need for ‘shelter, food and drink, a bed – / a common act of charitable B&B.’

Clarke explores the multiple roles of Hermes documented in his praise-names. I loved the sibilance of the lines ‘Psitthyristis. He’s the whisperer. / Psst!’ In ‘He Giveth Tongue’ Hermes is hailed as the inventor of the ‘polyglottal possibilities’ of language, ‘he’s the SIM card in your phone / your satnav’s voice, your texts and Twitter, webcam’.

He’s ‘The Night Visitor’ opening ‘the hidden regions where our dreams reside’, a friendly psychopomp stealing ‘fear and grief’ and Mercurius Duplex ‘the agent of transformation’ in an alchemical journey through Nigredo, Albedo, Coniunctio, and Rubedo.

Whilst Hermes shifts through many guises I was struck by the way he is consistently portrayed as a trickster god with an abiding sense of justice. When he steals Apollo’s cattle he says, ‘All property / is theft: these might as well be mine.’ In ‘He’s Rated Triple A’ ‘Access All Areas’ he is a ‘god of boundaries’ and ‘guide to legal or illegal immigrants,’ who feels ‘profound contempt / for human meanness, and our silent shame’ when children drown fleeing war. This stuck with me as a part of Hermes’ personality he wanted Clarke to portray.

The most powerful part of the book, for me, was when Clarke shifted from poetry about Hermes to a more personal prayer addressing him directly as a psychopomp at the end of the envoi:

And so, Lord of the Threshold, deathless friend
who guides us into the Otherworld . . . O keep
me loyal to the soul that wakes in sleep,
and lead me gently homewards at my end.

In this subtle dance between the ancient and modern Clarke succeeds in his aim to show us that Hermes does not only reside in archaic myths, but is ‘dancing about us everywhere these days’.

*A Dance with Hermes can be purchased from Awen Publications HERE.