The Book of Shadows: Feels unfinished

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review James Reese The Herculine Trilogy The Book of ShadowsThe Book of Shadows by James Reese

James Reese attempts Anne-Rice-style supernatural fiction with The Book of Shadows, his first novel. It is Rice-like in that it contains gender-bending sexual material, lush detail, horrifying violence, and a set of supernatural beings who have long existed in folklore but are given new “rules” and characteristics by the author. Here, it’s witches, but not the sort of harmless neo-pagan witches that are around today. These are witches as depicted in medieval lore, throwing orgies and dealing with demons.

The Book of Shadows tells the story of Herculine, an orphan whose mother died mysteriously, and who is shunned at the convent that took her in afterwards. A strange turn of events leads to Herculine’s trial for witchcraft. She is rescued at the last minute by an incubus, a succubus, and a witch/artist named Sebastiana, who takes her in.

Herculine reads Sebastiana’s Book of Shadows, her magical diary, and learns more about her kind. At this point it gets a little weird. Sebastiana’s diary is heavily drawn from the memoirs of Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun, real-life court painter to Marie Antoinette. There’s witchy stuff added in, but much of “Sebastiana’s” writing about painting and court gossip comes straight from Vigee-Lebrun. Vigee-Lebrun’s diary is in the public domain, so Reese is in the clear. As a reader, though, I wish he’d either invented Sebastiana’s life from whole cloth or else put a fictionalized version of Vigee-Lebrun herself in the story.

Herculine’s idyll at Sebastiana’s manor cannot last, as one of her hostess’s friends has decided Herculine is an enemy. She flees, takes on a new identity, and goes on two quests. The book ends when one of these quests has ended and the other has just begun. It’s an abrupt ending and much is never resolved.

I enjoyed The Book of Shadows in places, but I had numerous issues with it. The diary sections go on too long in the middle and bog the plot down. Some of the sex scenes hit my gross-out buttons; your mileage may vary. Some of the metaphysics, especially the rules about how witches can and can’t die, confused me. Most frustratingly, The Book of Shadows doesn’t seem to go anywhere at the end. I prefer books that stand on their own better, even if a series is intended.

And I thought I’d scream if I saw the word enfin one more time.

The Herculine Trilogy — (2002-2006) Publisher: Alone among the young girls taught by nuns at a convent school in nineteenth-century France, orphaned Herculine has neither wealth nor social connections. When she’s accused of being a witch, the shy student is locked up with no hope of escape … until her rescue by a real witch, the beautiful, mysterious Sebastiana. Swept away to the witch’s manor, Herculine will enter a fantastic, erotic world to discover her true nature — and her destiny.

James Reese The Herculine Trilogy 1. The Book of Shadows (2002) 2. The Book of Spirits (2005) 3. The Witchery (2006)James Reese The Herculine Trilogy 1. The Book of Shadows (2002) 2. The Book of Spirits (2005) 3. The Witchery (2006)James Reese The Herculine Trilogy 1. The Book of Shadows (2002) 2. The Book of Spirits (2005) 3. The Witchery (2006)


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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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