Sunday, August 16, 2009

“The Perils of a Prophecy”: A Review of Kit Berry’s Solstice at Stonewylde

(Moongazy Publishing, 2007, by Joey Madia

In the past two years I have had the pleasure of reading and reviewing the first two books in the Stonewylde series, Magus of Stonewylde and Moondance of Stonewylde. With the plot well in motion and the stakes raised to an almost unbearable height, I eagerly began reading what was to be the final book in the cycle, Solstice at Stonewylde.

It did not disappoint.

The most psychological of the three books, Solstice slows down the action as compared to the first two, considering the larger issues of power and wealth and just how far a person will go to obtain them. What is willingly left behind, what natural alliances are so easily broken, just how much of a price in soul and spirit we find ourselves willing to pay are all explored through scenes of mental and physical torture that leave the reader hoping that some heroic character will come bursting through the door to save the day.

But just like in life, no one comes, because no one can.

I want to tread carefully here, and in no way reveal plot points that might ruin the reader’s experience, so please forgive the generalities. As a fan of the trilogy, and of Kit Berry’s considerable skill and imagination, I will refrain from dwelling on content and focus instead on form.

The exploration of numerous story lines at once, in the great Tolkienesque tradition, is employed in Solstice with more irregularity and yet more power than in the previous two books. Long stretches of text focus on a pair of characters, driving home their isolation and alliance and literally leaving other key characters out in the growing cold; characters we feel for all the more for their absence.

I was very pleased with the revealing of secrets in the book. This is immensely difficult over the course of a trilogy, as so much information must be shared by the author and so many IOUs that were written to the reader (as my college writing professor would say) must be paid that it is hard not to employ a load of misdirection. As in life, some secrets were no surprise at all, and others were all the more surprising for having resided with characters who played seeming second fiddle throughout the previous books. As a writer who works in this genre, I learned a lot about how to make this work.

A few words must be said about the fulfillment of the prophecy that hangs especially sharp over the second book. Again, prophecies, related as they are to the creation and unveiling of secrets, are hard to do well, as evidenced by the seventh Potter book. Inevitability is darned hard to make interesting, and yet it is what the writer must do. Kudos to Kit Berry for doing it well.

In the closing chapters, Berry uses some interesting changes in voice and perspective as events are reaching their climax. These techniques serve the story well, enhancing and heightening the drama without resorting to a bunch of sidelines to drag things out.

As I said in the opening, this was to be the final book in the series, but there is a note at the end of Solstice informing readers that we can expect two more. Refreshingly, all will not be cozy and kind at Prophecy’s end.

With such a strong concept, magical land, and so many aspects of the vivid characters of Stonewylde still waiting to be explored, why should it be?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Review of Journey to the Heart, by Nora Caron (2008, Fisher King Press,

A Review of Journey to the Heart, by Nora Caron (2008, Fisher King Press,

In this time of complexity and endless challenge, I have come to truly appreciate a good, well-told tale of spiritual quest and growth.

Journey to the Heart, by debut novelist Nora Caron, is just such a book.

Her main character, Lucina (“illumination”; the Roman goddess of childbirth), has a lousy job, an overbearing mother, and a poor history with men. Needing to get away and gain some perspective, she goes to Mexico City.

Fans of the Mel Mathews books LeRoi, Menopause Man, and Samsara (also from Fisher King Press) may recognize what could easily pass for the female Malcolm Clay. Here she is, in a country not her own (she is Canadian) and she is crass and sarcastic, disparaging the ways and customs of the locals and asking herself such things about her host as “Did she want to murder her? Turn her into a human burrito or something?” (p. 16). This is in reference to Señora Labotta, a mystical woman whom Lucina thinks of initially as a “witch.”

The good Señora, undaunted by Lucina’s ignorance (“Canadians … You are all the same. You do not get it right way: too intellectual, too caught up in the head…”; p. 15) invites her to camp on her land, earning her keep by tending to the garden. Soon after, she meets Teleo (“logic”), the son of the Señora, who is training to be a medicine man. Lucina immediately falls for him.

No doubt the reader sees where this is going. And in many ways, it does. Caron adds some interesting devices to spice it up and keep it new, though. There is the constant voice of her therapist, Dr. Field, which plays both confirmation and counterpoint to what Señora Labotta and Teleo try to teach Lucina. This seesawing of perspectives is nowhere stronger than in Lucina’s heart, and, again like Malcolm Clay, she is given to taking two steps forward and three steps back.

There is also a considerable portion of the last half of the book that consists of Lucina sharing the details of her past losses in love. While somewhat unexpected, this device works well, mostly because the stories are interesting and easy to relate to (the Señora says “your love stories are humanity’s stories,” p. 193). This, I think, is the point of Lucina’s vacillations and at times frustrating density. She is like most of us—wanting change but so afraid to do what it takes to make it happen; to seize the opportunities put before us by larger forces, so we retreat to well-worn paths and old mistakes.

My favorite parts of the novel had to do with the trips Lucina and Teleo take to ancient Mesoamerican sites, and the cultural/historical information that Caron shares through them. The symbols that are sprinkled throughout the book become concentrated in these sections, giving the reader an opportunity to consider them deeply at times while always having them in the background at others.

The novel’s end is far from definitive, which again made me think of the Malcolm Clay trilogy and how things in the real world never really are. The constant push and pull of our “calling” or “fate” or “path” is a complicated process, which Journey to the Heart succeeds in capturing, offering the reader ample incentive to keep on trying to get there.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

“A Guiding Light in Interesting Times”: A Review of The Toltec I Ching: 64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World

by Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden (Larson Publications, 2009,

There is an ancient Eastern curse that says “May you live in interesting times.”

A quick glance at the daily headlines tells us that, a decade or so into the twenty-first century, these times certainly fit the bill.

As an artist who uses the principles of shamanism and aspects of other spiritual systems to both create and to teach, I am always looking for new sources of inspiration and insight. As a father, husband, and mentor to young people, I am continually seeking means to clarification and ways of making sense and gaining peace in highly stressful and complicated times.

Over the past two decades, I have found ways of using tarot, runes, and other devices to help. I have stayed away from the I Ching because of all the many tools for insight and divination, I have found the hexagrams and casting of the coins to be complicated and hard to make sense of.

The authors of The Toltec I Ching, Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden, have changed that with this brand new book. I found their text both enlightening and easy to follow, and their approach of marrying a Chinese system with a Mesoamerican one yields abundant fruit.

First, a few words about the authors. Ramirez-Oropeza, according to the dust cover, is “a mural painter, a performer in popular theatre, and a researcher/lecturer of the Nahuatl pre-Hispanic codices of Mexico.” Nahuatl, according to several sources, is a language that traces back to the Aztecs. The word itself is translated as “good, clear sound.” Horden “has researched indigenous divinatory systems of ancient China and Mexico with passion and independence since 1969. He is steeped in the shamanic world view.”

Perhaps it is because the authors and I are kindred spirits that the book spoke so clearly and resonantly to me. We certainly do come from similar paths. The promotional materials sent by the publisher reference The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz and the Peaceful Warrior books by Dan Millman, which sit well-worn and many-times-read on my bookshelf. They have become old friends, as The Toltec I Ching no doubt shall.

What is new and key to this book is the focus on Balance. East and West, Masculine and Feminine, the 64 hexagram paintings and descriptions move away from the male, aristocratic biases that have mired the I Ching in the past, and call strongly upon the feminine creative principle in providing much-needed guidance.

The book, with its Mesoamerican influences, also situates its contents in the coming of December 21, 2012, when the Mayan calendar ends one age in anticipation of another. Writers such as John Major Jenkins and Daniel Pinchbeck see 2012 as the doorway to a new evolutionary and spiritual time for humanity, and I hope that this book will join with theirs to help educate those who have misunderstood 2012 as a time of cataclysm and Armageddon. A quick scroll through the History Channel listings or the anticipation around a new movie coming out this December illustrate that for every philosopher-shaman that sees 2012 as a time of opportunity and positive change there are others who want to use it to breed fear and make a few dollars playing into it.

Now to the substance of the book.

The opening material is clear, concise, and uplifting. The “Introduction” details all of the aspects of the authors’ process and rationale for combining the two systems that I have thus far mentioned. The “Casting and Interpreting the Oracle” section takes the reader through the process from casting the coins to producing the hexagrams that will guide the reading. As I mentioned, there is no complicated language or convoluted steps as one often finds in previous I Ching manuals. I was casting my first coins not very long after cracking the spine.

The hexagram paintings are, in a word, beautiful. For me, this is important, as I use half a dozen different decks of tarot for inspiration and creation, all chosen for the meditative and conscious dreaming potential of their artwork. The paintings translate the Toltec tenets, symbols, and ways of living into spiritually stimulating visuals that merge with the prose explanations on several levels of resonation.

The text explanations are broken into sections that will be familiar to users of the tarot. They are Image, Interpretation, Action, Intent, and Summary. I have found, after multiple readings, that the Line Change explanations that follow these sections, which have confused me in past experiences with the I Ching, offer action-oriented guidance for bridging the present and future aspects of each reading. Being that I have come to see divinatory tools as “organizing principles” as I seek help in fulfilling my many roles, the Line Change explanations are one of the highlights of the book.

I have used The Toltec I Ching to gain clarity and direction for several important aspects of my life that are sitting on the cusp of vital change in the past several weeks and I find it to be a great help. I have come away from a reading feeling empowered, with a heart full of guiding principles to apply as I navigate my way through the personal, professional, global, and universal changes that are at work in my life.

I heart-fully recommend this book to users of divinatory tools, those interested in the symbol systems of the Toltecs, Aztecs, and Mayans, and those who see or wish to see 2012 and the twenty-first century as a time, not of curses and apocalypse, but of great opportunity for humanity to enter a new and blessed phase of existence.