Occult Reads

Shaman's Crossing 22 February 2008

Jim Butcher

White Night

Jim Butcher’s finest hour in White Night is the description of his hero, “professional wizard” Harry Dresden, in his first encounter with rock-chick-Aerosmith-fan-ex-girlfriend Elaine Mallory: “Is that a new staff, or are you just happy to see me?” she drawls.

Contrary to first impressions and its dubious title, White Night is not fantasy literature of the erotic kind. The novel follows Dresden in his investigation of a series of apparent suicides. The professional wizard’s magical detection leads to the discovery of Da-Vinci-esque messages at the crime scenes, revealing the deaths as murders of witches from the “Ordo Lebes”; otherwise known as the “Order of the Cauldron”. As his investigation progresses, Dresden finds evidence implicating his own half-brother and part-demon Thomas, and becomes embroiled in the raging war between vampires and ghouls, whilst always finding time to compliment an attractive female on her “beautiful, gore-smattered face”.

I confess, it was tough to take the ninth instalment of Butcher’s Dresden Files series too seriously. It was even tougher to believe that some deluded publisher had allowed him to write nine of these shockers. But no, according to our very own magical source, Wikipedia, Butcher is a New York Times Best Selling author.

The plot is fast-paced enough, the language simple, the dialogue lively. On the other hand, so is Burglar Bill. Unlike Burglar Bill, however, White Night struggles to give its characters more than two dimensions. The novel is constantly burdened by cliché; it never realises the meaning of the word subtlety. Most irritating is the overuse of the verb “snarl”, to such an extent that every character must have snarled, or been snarled at, on at least twelve occasions over the course of the novel. If this is your first (and no doubt last) Dresden Files novel, the plot is fundamentally flawed by the exhaustive amount of magical orders, names and politics that complicate the storyline. Unless you’re a Dresdenphile, it is perplexing to comprehend why, for example, the wizard stores a sexy fallen angel inside his head.

The main problem I had with the book was Harry Dresden himself. His forename was most distracting, particularly in Chapter 41 when aforementioned fallen angel declares, “because of why you were born, Harry. Your mother found the strength to escape Lord Raith”. Deja vu, anyone? Mind you, spotty Harry Potter is a whole lot sexier than Harry “I so need to get laid” Dresden. His badass chat, with golden lines including “Bring it, Darth Bathrobe”, his propensity to blow up cars when he gets a little hot under the collar, and his porn-movie credentials, make him the man every man wants to be. Right?

For me, however, this penis-extension of a novel failed entirely to convince.

– Louisa Sutton

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Kate Mosse

Sepulchre

The first thing I noticed about Sepulchre is that the publishers have paid rare attention to detail in laying out the book, and I appreciate this the way I appreciate a high-budget movie: a lot of effort went into entertaining me. The inside covers feature illustrations of eight cards from an imaginary tarot set which is central to the novel. Other tidbits include a map, a piece of sheet music specially written for this book and a bar of music at the end of each chapter. Unfortunately, it seems that these embellishments might have been introduced to make up for something lacking in the story itself.

Sepulchre, like its phenomenally best-selling predecessor Labyrinth, interweaves the stories of two female protagonists, one in the past and one modern-day. In 1891, Leonie Vernier travels with her brother Anatole to their widowed aunt’s home in southern France, an estate called the Domaine de la Cade. Recently some strange things have been happening at the Domaine; among other things, there are reports of a demonic beast stealing children away and mauling them to death. While exploring the estate, Leonie finds an ancient sepulchre and a set of tarot cards that can access demonic spirits.

In 2007, American academic Meredith Martin travels to Paris to research composer Claude Debussy and decides to take a mini-break to the Domaine, which is now a boutique hotel. Meredith is looking for information about her birth mother, and the scant evidence she has leads her to the nearby town of Rennes-les-Bains. Before she can get to the bottom of her own mystery, however, she discovers the older mysteries surrounding the place, culminating in a mass of deaths on Halloween 1897. Along with an English hottie she meets at the hotel, she sets out to find out the truth.

Mosse’s prose and dialogue are jarring at times, particularly during the 19th-century bits. Contrary to Labyrinth, the storyline of Sepulchre is simply not compelling enough to compensate. The modern-day characters are engaging, but Leonie is rarely likeable, despite being the best the 19th-century crew has to offer (with the exception of Audric Baillard, whom Labyrinth fans will recognise lovingly).

One problem with Sepulchre‘s story line is that it’s just a bit silly to think of a cloven-hoofed demon named Asmodeus romping gleefully about the countryside. However, once I came to terms with Asmodeus, I wanted him to kick ass and take names, but he never delivered enough to justify the silliness.

Read Labyrinth first, and if you love it and want more, then read Sepulchre. Meanwhile, I recommend buying Sepulchre as an attractive addition to your bookshelf.

– Ryan Roark

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For some fantastic fantasy reads, check out:

Kate Mosse

Labyrinth (2005)

In this novel, Kate Mosse presents us with two protagonists, modern-day Alice and 13th-century Alais. Alais’s fate becomes entwined with that of the Grail. 800 years later, Alice uncovers clues about the mystery surrounding the lives and deaths of Alaïs and her family-and discovers that her own destiny is also linked to the Grail. Mosse has filled her tale with lots of well researched historical details about the Crusades against Cathars in southern France and Occitan culture. The ancient story is more engrossing than the present, but the novel is a page-turner that deserves its international best-selling status.

Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian (2005)

In essence a unique and modern re-working of an old myth, The Historian begins with a sixteen-year-old girl discovering an old vellum bound book with only a woodprint carving of a dragon marking its pages. When she confronts her father, she learns that Dracula is not just a legend but in fact played a significant role in the disappearances of both her father’s mentor and her mother. Although slow to start, Kostova builds upon a carefully sculpted plot that is not only well-crafted but provides a fascinating insight into some of the more alluring Eastern European countries.

Robin Hobb

Shaman’s Crossing (2005)

Shaman’s Crossing follows Nevare Burvelle as he makes his way from his home near the border to the King’s Academy where he is due to fulfil his destiny as a second son and become a soldier in the Gernian Army. However, before he sets off, his father leaves him in the hands of a sworn enemy of Gernia who forces him to make the Shaman’s crossing, a journey that changes his fate irrevocably. Hobb brings all her usual skill in characterisation to bear in Shaman’s Crossing and encourages the consideration of important forces from industrialisation to the nature of paternal love.