THE BOOK OF SPIRITS is the sequel to James Reese's THE BOOK OF
SHADOWS, the first volume in the saga of Herculine, a child of
Hermes and Aphrodite and a timid witch with a dual gender who is
unaware of the strength of her powers.
We join Herculine in the year 1826 on a long ocean crossing from
France to Virginia. Aboard the ship, Herculine becomes entranced by
violet-eyed Celia, a young slave possessed of an astounding beauty.
After a grueling voyage, during which Herculine keeps a steady eye
on Celia and her master, the ship docks in Richmond. There,
Herculine is led to a damaged old seeress, Mother-of-Venus. She
tells Herculine what the future holds, a future entwined with that
of Celia's. Recognizing Herculine as a witch of some peculiar
uniqueness, Mammy Venus prepares her for the difficult task of
freeing Celia. Aiding in the plot for flight is none other than
Edgar Poe, his sister Rosalie, and his mother Eliza Poe, all of
whom figure prominently into the story.
Poe's mother makes an appearance as the ghost she is by 1826,
recounting her part in the horrific Richmond Theater fire, in which
it is said that over 70 people died. James Reese has taken the
events of this tragic night and imagined a whole new set of
circumstances for the fire's origin, one involving mischievous
spirits. Old Mammy Venus was there that long-ago night with her
owners, for she was also a slave, whole and healthy. By the end of
that dreadful day, she was clinging to life by a thread, severely
burned and disfigured from her heroic attempts to save trapped and
disoriented victims. Mammy's past, so full of agony and cruelty,
has made her adamant that Celia must be wrenched away from her
abusive master, and Herculine is the one who must do it.
Herculine succeeds, but finds herself tempted to abuse Celia
similarly, for she grievously has been smitten since first she laid
eyes on her. Driven by this obsession, Herculine casts a love spell
over her, bewitching her completely, but soon shrinks in
self-disgust. Horrified at what she has done, she flees to
Manhattan to seek the counsel of a host of witches at a place
called Cyprian House. During her quite extended stay there,
dressing in female attire, Herculine learns the ways of the House,
entertaining herself --- and her colorful housemates --- in a
cornucopia of sexual experiments and delights.
Once Herculine has been given an answer to her dilemma --- how to
unbewitch Celia --- she begins her return trip home. Finding that
Celia has fled their house back in Florida, Herculine embarks on a
search that takes her into Indian country, where she beseeches
everyone she meets to give her word of Celia's whereabouts. Her
journey becomes a penance of sorts, during which her desire to set
things right begins to outweigh her love for Celia. As she traces
Celia's trail, she is warned about Sweet Marie, an inaptly named
and very nasty witch of impressive power. Nonetheless, she seeks
Sweet Marie's aid in finding Celia. Herculine may have regretted
that once she was in her grasp, for Sweet Marie has a mean streak
to end all mean streaks.
THE BOOK OF SPIRITS is exceptionally well researched. One gets the
feeling that Reese wanted to recount history in a new and different
way, so he used witches and spirits as his medium. It flows with
prose so beautiful that it borders on poetry. But, beware, it is
not for the faint of heart. Fans of Anne Rice will relish this
newcomer with his talent for the Gothic tale, spun with his darkly
witty and bizarre imagination.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on December 22, 2010