Spiritual Drought

I went years after I finished college without participating in any Pagan groups. Mostly it was location and time-availability restricting me. And it figures that just a few months before moving away from Central California, I found the ONLY other Pagan in the area starting work at my company.

The thing is—I’m built for group work. It’s fulfilling and wonderful. I was raised in a very involved church, where members went to services or events at least three days a week. After every service was an “agape” session that was a potluck for mingling and cementing bonds. I was so involved with the friends I had at the church that I had no idea how to make friends at school—and went a few years with only a single friend there.

In middle school after I found Wicca I started a coven with my best friend and some other close girlfriends. That coven was the closest, best relationship I’ve ever had with women. That it fell apart is to be expected—I’m the only devout Pagan of the bunch. Everyone else lapsed or converted to other religions over time. But it was a beautiful, soul-enriching thing for a long time.

When I went to college I had the luck of meeting a lifelong Pagan through a mutual friend, and he quickly brought me along to the Pagan group events at the local Unitarian Universalist church. Then a friend of a friend spear-headed the creation of a Pagan Alliance at our college, and we had those rituals and group events as well.

After I graduated, I moved to a more affordable area, closer to my then-boyfriend’s job. There went my Pagan groups. From there we moved all over the place, and I didn’t always have a car, or the money to spare on gas to get to events I knew were happening.

Then I spent two years in Paso Robles, a very nice area but predominantly Christian (with only one other aforementioned Pagan that I’d ever found). I had a nice Pagan wedding, but it’s different when the only people who are Pagan are the bride and the officiant.

Now we’ve moved to my home, a place that speaks to me, body and soul. And there are Pagans here. More than I thought existed in a single area anywhere. I went to one non-denominational, all-inclusive event. Then I had to miss the next one, since we had family in town. And I’m starving for it. For the sense of community. The peace that descends when you are among people who get it. It’s a different sort of vibe, knowing that you can fundamentally agree with people on that spiritual level. Pagans are as varied as they come, but being around them and worshipping with them recharges me in a way I didn’t realize I’d been missing.

I’ve been in a spiritual drought, and I finally got some water in late February, only for the land to dry up again right away. It was just a tease, and now I’m craving more.

Some day, I’ll have a coven of my own. A small group of people who meet near Sabbats and esbats. People who support each other in all areas, not just in religion and spirituality. In the meantime, I’ll go to big group events as often as I can. I’ll take what small steps I can, on my own. Tomorrow night, I’ll celebrate the full moon.

Dies the Fire

Post-apocalyptic fiction is a big deal for me. I’ve always thought that raising the stakes is the best way to see who a character truly is. On a small scale you could say that’s why I prefer YA over adult fiction so often—because for teenagers things are often perceived as life or death, even if “death” is only social suicide. Why do I prefer speculative fiction over realism? Same thing. Stakes are usually higher. Characters facing magic or new frontiers or intergalactic wars—bigger scale, higher stakes. Frodo can bring down this great force of evil if he just manages to walk to Mordor and throw a trinket into a volcano. One character, making all the difference.

So apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction is great, because it rips away everything a character knows and loves, and we get to see what’s left. What they can make of themselves, when they have nothing.

Dies the Fire follows two strong protagonists who become leaders in a world Changed. Gunpowder doesn’t explode anymore. The laws of physics have changed. No electricity. No electronics, period.

I like Mike because he’s a bit of a hardass, and gets shit done while protecting his people. Juniper is great because she’s strong but yielding enough to be really likable. And, she’s Pagan. How cool is that? S M Stirling gets the details right, too, which really helps. No mis-representation of Paganism for the sake of Hollywood thrills here.

This first novel of the first trilogy of the novels of the Change (say that ten times fast) starts right at the Change itself, which is cool to witness through both our protagonists’ eyes. And for this particular apocalypse scenario, it’s better that we can watch the characters face the Change head on, rather than joining them years after the fact. Still, the novels could all be considered post-apocalyptic because they really deal more with the fallout of the Change than with the Change itself. Empires are built back up and go to war, that sort of thing.

I like Stirling’s writing style, too. He’s got plenty of details in there, writes good dialogue, and knows how to get us invested in these characters by showing us their flaws right alongside their strengths. I’ve read this first trilogy a few times now, and it’s definitely worth it. An excellent read for the post-apocalyptic novel fan, the avid reader who happens to be Pagan, and the speculative fiction reader who enjoys adult fiction with strong characterization and semi-epic storylines (seeing as the second trilogy follows the second generation).

The Witches of Echo Park

I have to be honest and say here that I read this book solely because I was going to meet Amber Benson face-to-face. One of my friends and fellow alums from UCRPD’s MFA program, Xach Fromson, started a fabulous reading series called Shades & Shadows. S&S brings together genre writers to read from their recently published and forthcoming works. Lovers of horror, sci fi, fantasy, weird, paranormal, and mystery stories get together to celebrate genre writing, in a reading series that truly seems to be one of a kind.

Amber Benson, now friend of the UCRPDMFA program, was going to appear at the grad school residency and at S&S. While I would have preferred to meet her at residency, where you get the opportunity for one-on-one conversations and deeper conversations about craft, I couldn’t attend this time. So, Shades & Shadows it was.

When I started The Witches of Echo Park, I was fair confused. Here’s a writer whose last works were middle grade and Young Adult novels, who is writing an at least New Adult novel here. Yet we open with Eleanora, a character who we aren’t sure whether we’re supposed to care about, yet.

As the novel unfolds, the story turns into equal parts Eleanora and Lyse, old woman dying of cancer and young, fumbling woman trying to find out who and what she is, and what that means in the greater scheme of things. For a time, the prose was too dense, the present-day happenings not interesting enough, because I didn’t know enough about the characters yet to care about them. Around 50% (as I was reading on my Kindle), we hit a steamy sex scene that effectively jump-started my interest. It never faltered completely after that, though I was a little annoyed at the too-convenient romance with a guy who just happens to be a complete gentleman, not wanting the woman to enter into a relationship unless she’s sure she’s serious. Because we all have that sort of resolve and forethought as adults, right?

Still, the book is intriguing, and feels like the first part of an exploration of an ensemble cast. It actually made me more eager to read Benson’s middle grade novels, as I have a feeling she might be like JK Rowling, more comfortable writing in her first chosen genre, still finding her legs in her second.

As far as the Pagan references go, there was a lot of emphasis on spirits and blood-bonds, which to me isn’t the most fascinating thing about magick, but which serves a useful purpose in fiction no doubt. The villains’ motives are religious, it seems, which rings true. Who better to pit against a witch than a priest?

Seeing Amber Benson at Shades & Shadows, and taking an awkward selfie with her because I promised a fellow Buffy fan that I would, was wonderful. Her acting is beautiful, and her stage-voice during the reading was theatric but not overdone, which I appreciated. I think her writing is still developing, but makes me excited for what is to come. I’ll check back in after reading some of her other books, and leave more full impressions then.