Title: Death and Relaxation (Ordinary Magic Book One)...
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Title: Death and Relaxation (Ordinary Magic Book One)...
I start awake with the prickling knowledge that someone is in the room.
Every house has its secrets. I am about to learn one.
My eyes fly open. A luminescence hovers mid-air at the foot of the bed.
We'd been in the house nine months. My bedroom faces west, so I was accustomed to wake to darkness.
But now a shaft of red-gold, ancestral light slants in, spans the room, and illumines the windows of the west.
Minneapolis is a four-square city, its good Midwestern street-grid laid out cardinally. As the Sun rises due east at the equinoxes in his annual journey along the horizon, his light shines in through the east window, streams in a thick, tangible column down the hall, and into my bedroom on the west.
Like something out of New Grange.
The omen could hardly have been clearer.
It was spring break of my junior year. I'd come to Minneapolis, ostensibly in search of a graduate program. Actually, I'd come in search of a community. In search of a people.
My friend had picked me up at the train station. Driving home down Lake Street, I saw it.
I guess you could say that a wall spoke to me. Minneapolis is a City of Murals. There it was, covering the entire side of a building.
Flowers, butterflies. (Hey, it was the 70s.) These words:
Does evil exist?
The ancestors certainly thought so. Looking around me in the world, I can't help but think that they were right.
I sometimes hear pagans dismissing the existence of evil with a cavalier wave of the hand. (I've been there myself.) As, many of us, people of privilege living in a society of privilege—some of us reacting against upbringings obsessed with metaphysical evil—it's easy to be dismissive.
But the ancestors knew about evil long before the coming of the missionaries. 5500 years ago, speakers of the Indo-European Mother Tongue knew evil as *upelo-. 3000 years later, the speakers of Common Germanic spoke of *ubilaz. The Anglo-Saxon tribe known as the Hwicce, the original Tribe of Witches, called if yfel (Watkins 98).
I'm not arguing for the existence of evil as a principle or a metaphysical entity. Although—linguistically speaking—evil may be a noun, it's not a thing in se.
Well, they're starting their annual journey to the Valley of Souls.
Black-and-orange, black-and-orange, black-and-orange.
Even as a kid, they struck me as foreshadowing, as little flecks of Samhain fluttering, by some act of temporal disturbance, into summer.
Danaus plexippus: known variously as the milkweed, tiger, or (for unclear reasons) the monarch butterfly.
When did butterflies first come to symbolize souls? Who can say? (They're not uncommon in Minoan glyptic art.) The reasons for the connection are certainly clear enough. Probably you could rattle off three or four, if you wanted to.
And—among other reasons—like souls, butterflies are migratory.
Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Read for the Women of Genre Fiction challenge, the 12 Awards in 12 Months challenge, the LGBTQ Speculative Fiction challengeand the Vernon Library Summer Reading challenge. I was going to read this for the Apocalypse Now! Challenge, but the world was not destroyed and therefore, it does not qualify.
I loved this book. I loved everything about it! I have encountered some of Nalo Hopkinson’s short fiction before and was intrigued, but this novel received a lot of awards and a lot of critical acclaim, and was her first explosion on the scene. One of those awards was the Aurora Award, which is Canada’s tribute to our science fiction and fantasy writers, so naturally I was honour-bound to read it eventually anyway, but what a pleasure!
In this novel of magical realism, which takes place in a dystopian Toronto that has been abandoned by the Canadian and Ontario governments after an economic collapse, Ti-Jeanne has just recently left the father of her baby to live with her grandmother because he is a drug addict who has gotten mixed up with the local organized crime syndicate who runs the inner city, called the Posse, and she realizes that as much as she loves him, he’s no good for her and less good for the baby. There is no police force in operation in the urban remains, none of the city’s infrastructure is supported, and economy has gone back to bartering and growing what one can in the remains of the city’s many iconic parks, so there is little consequence for participating in crime and the Posse has a free rein in the city. The leader of the Posse, Rudy, has made a deal with a shady hospital to provide a human heart for a transplant to the Premier of the Province (for you Americans, that’s like the state governor.) Rudy has learned that Tony, the father of Ti-Jeanne’s baby, has been skimming off the top of the drugs he has been selling for Rudy to support his own habit, and has blackmailed him into fetching the heart from one of the local urban residents – by force. Tony was once a nurse before his habit got him fired.
What makes this scenario really interesting is that Ti-Jeanne’s grandmother, Gros-Jeanne (yes, for those of you who speak French, the names are deliberately symbolic) is a Caribbean immigrant who is a priestess of a Caribbean Afro-Diasporic tradition. The Afro-Diasporic traditions are syncretic faiths such as Voodoo and Santeria; Gros-Jeanne never specifies her tradition and actually says that they are all essentially the same. This turns the sordid scenario into an epic spirit quest in the Caribbean spiritual tradition, taking place partially in the physical world and partially in the spirit world. Much of the magic, until near the end of the book, might only be happening in the minds of the characters, and best of all, the Voodoo is real. I am a Wiccan priestess and have had the opportunity to learn just enough about Voodoo from practitioners that I have met to recognize the rituals, the symbolism, the magical practices and the spirits themselves.
The overall effect is an exercise in surrealism, told with a masterful hand. The language is simple but the characters and the story are deep. I don’t dare tell you anymore for risk of spoiling the story. I will say that I loved everything about it, from the story itself, to the mythic themes of Caribbean culture that were mined to create the story structure, to the evocative descriptions, to the use of modern iconic places to create a sense of realism, to the theme, which, ultimately, is a complex examination of what “family” actually is. I find myself beaming with Canadian pride in Nalo Hopkinson, and I highly recommend this novel to pretty much anyone.
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“So, what are you guys doing for New Moon?”
I'm talking long-distance with a friend.
“We're having a discussion about cursing,” I tell her.
These days, we generally do at Full, and discuss at New. Mostly, it makes for a good balance; you need to get things done, but you also need to think about things.
“Touchy subject,” she replies. “Should be an interesting discussion.”
She pauses, then laughs, adding: “Assuming it doesn't break up the coven first.”