Review

The Book of Shadows

by James Reese



Set against the decadent riches and the stern religiosity of 19th
century France, THE BOOK OF SHADOWS by James Reese is a dark and
dramatic tale of self-discovery and the supernatural. Herculine, a
young orphan living in a convent after witnessing her mothers
bloody and bizarre death, finds herself in her own bloody and
bizarre situation. After a sexual encounter with the Mother
Superior's niece, Herculine is accused of witchcraft. As she sits
awaiting her surely violent fate, she is visited by two ghosts and
a mysterious and beautiful woman. They have come to rescue her,
reveal her true identity and enlist her help. Herculine, as it
turns out, is a witch and a hermaphrodite, and her powers are
essential in releasing one ghost from her eternal purgatory.

THE BOOK OF SHADOWS is Herculine's own Book of Shadows; her witch's
journal of spells, autobiography, and record of her knowledge of
the Craft. In it she recounts her early years in the convent, her
intense sexual awakening, her amazing rescue, and her adventures
with her rescuers --- Sebestiana, Father Louis, and Madeleine. The
book also excerpts episodes from Sebestiana's Book of Shadows and
takes the reader to the violent days of the French Revolution.
Reese's prose is at once lush and brutal. Herculine's tale is gory
and sexually charged yet oddly mannered and occasionally
understated; beauty and tenderness are often juxtaposed with
violence and pain. This tale, despite its romantic trappings, is
graphic.

There are two major themes of potential interest introduced by
Reese: gender and identity and the historic corruption of the
Catholic Church. Both of these, one would think, would have
far-reaching emotional implications for Herculine. She seems,
however, to take it all in stride. She is excited to leave the
convent and excited to be a witch. She is comfortable with the
gender issues presented her and soon adopts men's clothing. All of
her intimate partners are also comfortable and seem even less
surprised than she was to discover her "uniqueness." While it is
refreshing to find an author who treats these issues at all and
especially one whose character remains strong and even confident,
Reese fails to add any depth or dimension. So much could have been
done with these themes, transforming the novel from a dark but fun
read into a challenging and interesting one. Reese chooses not to
allow Herculine's life-altering revelations to lead to any personal
alteration or emotional conflict.

All of the characters in THE BOOK OF SHADOWS are interesting but
none are fully developed or three-dimensional. All have potential
to draw the reader in and affect them, but none actually do. As
much as you may want to care about these characters, Reese gives
you little reason to do so. This is not to say this novel is
without merit. It is painstakingly composed, obviously well
researched and quite fun at times. It is bloody, romantic, raunchy
and sometimes sweet. Although it never seems to fully commit to a
genre, gothic horror and vampire fiction fans looking for a sexy
and easy (but detailed) read will enjoy this tale. Those hoping to
be really scared or challenged will be disappointed.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 21, 2011

The Book of Shadows
by James Reese

  • Publication Date: December 1, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Mass Market Paperback: 640 pages
  • Publisher: HarperTorch
  • ISBN-10: 0061031844
  • ISBN-13: 9780061031847