Monthly Archives: July 2015

Book Review: Going Through the Change by Samantha Bryant

cover2500Genre: Superhero story

Publisher: Curiosity Quills Press, VA

Description:

Going through “the change” isn’t easy on any woman. Mood swings, hot flashes, hormonal imbalances, and itchy skin are par for the course. But for these four seemingly unrelated women, menopause brought changes none of them had ever anticipated-super-heroic changes. Helen discovers a spark within that reignites her fire. Jessica finds that her mood is lighter, and so is her body. Patricia always had a tough hide, but now even bullets bounce off her. Linda doesn’t have trouble opening the pickle jar anymore…now that she’s a man. When events throw the women together, they find out that they have more in common than they knew-one person has touched all their lives. The hunt for answers is on.

This story has perhaps the most original and unusual premise in recent years. Menopause plus the strange concoctions of an unscrupulous scientist combine to give four women super powers. One obtains the power of flight. Another becomes fireproof and gains the ability to create and control fire. A third undergoes a sex change and gains super strength. A fourth develops reptilian scales that emerge when she is angry or frightened and make her impervious to bullets and most other physical damage.

In most comic-book-type superhero stories, someone who developed super powers would quickly adjust to the new reality and set out to accomplish something — save the world, get revenge, make herself rich — and slide smoothly into one of the standard comic slots: superhero, super-villain, anti-hero. Going Through the Change takes a somewhat more realistic approach, as each of the empowered women spends a lot of the book trying to figure out what is wrong and looking for a cure. This allows for some good character development which, unfortunately, comes at the expense of pacing and plot during the first half of the book. It doesn’t pick up the pace and become a more conventional action-packed superhero story until the second half.

The characters themselves are well developed, but I found most of them not very sympathetic. The clear exception is Linda/Leonel, whose menopausal transformation changes her from a petite housewife into a strapping man with superhuman strength. Her ongoing compassion, dedication to her family, kindness, and good sense make her (him?) the best of the bunch. Jessica the airborne, who in her thirties is also by far the youngest of the women (her menopause is the result of surgical removal of her ovaries to treat ovarian cancer), comes across as insecure and flighty (no pun intended by me, though Ms. Bryant may have intended one) until circumstances force her to learn how to control her power. Patricia of the reptilian armor scales is a hard-assed business executive, the classic boss from Hell, and I found her quite unlikable (perhaps because I’ve worked for too many people like her, male and female both). Helen the fireball-tosser becomes addicted to her destructive power and is the closest of the bunch to fitting a standard super-villain role. Her madness is terrifying and her indifference to human suffering is chilling.

The unscrupulous genius behind all the changes, Cindy Liu, although possessing no super-powers herself beyond remarkable scientific brilliance (but then, neither did Lex Luthor, right?), is the pure archetype of the bad, bad scientist whose devotion to her work eclipses any shred of humanity.

The pace of the book picks up very strongly in the second half, when Linda/Leonel, Jessica, and Patricia figure out the central role of Dr. Liu in their transformations and try to track her down and make her reverse what she has done, or at least explain it. Helen joins up with Dr. Liu who is the source of the pills that give her fiery powers, which Helen loves and wants to keep. The story features lots of superhero fight scenes and plot twists once it gets rolling.

The biggest complaint that people have about Going Through the Change is its ending, which leaves a lot of things unresolved. That would be quite acceptable in the start of a series, with more to come, which may be the case, although it’s not specified as such anywhere. On the assumption that it is the first part of a series, I’m going to give the book four stars, for superior characterization and concept, and let’s hope that the potential is developed further in sequels to the story.

Available from Amazon for $4.99 (Kindle Edition) or $15.99 in print.

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Spiritual Traditions — and Liberation From Same

11450442_sI had a bit of a debate recently with a very pleasant and erudite Druid named John Beckett over on Patheos. The debate concerned his article on difficulties finding the “right tradition for you,” and I chimed in with comments observing that maybe the problem is in the premise that any one existing tradition is “right” for you. Apparently this and the ensuing discussion provoked the good Druid enough that he followed up with another post explaining why, in his view, sticking with an established tradition is the only healthy way to pursue a spiritual path, and raising alarms about the dangers of choosing methods and ideas “at random.” (As an ironic side-note, Mr. Beckett mentioned the late Isaac Bonwitz as one of his mentors. It’s ironic because, although Bonewitz was indeed one of the founders and framers of modern Druidism, he was also one of the most eclectic, creative mages around, and one of those most inclined to thumb his nose at pretensions of orthodoxy.)

Rather than tiresomely pursing the matter in further comments and making a nag of myself, I decided to write a post of my own on the subject.

What is a Spiritual “Tradition”?

In essence, a spiritual tradition is a religion. Its focus is on the spiritual quest more than on the exoteric concerns of religion such as public morality, but otherwise it differs from other traditions in the same way as one religion differs from another. This encompasses three things: philosophical concepts, mythology, and spiritual practices.

Philosophical concepts include theology, but go beyond that to also include metaphysics and epistemology and ethics. Mythology encompasses the deities, imagery, poetry, and symbolism of the tradition. Spiritual practices include meditations, religious and magical ritual, physical exercises, lifestyle disciplines, and learning, all oriented towards achieving enlightenment, as the tradition views that concept.

There’s a certain congruence or commonality about spiritual practices that arises from their pragmatic nature. Either something works or it doesn’t, and few traditions will continue for long using a practice that doesn’t work. Thus one finds, for example, mantra and mandala meditation among Yogis, and Catholics who pray the Rosary, an exercise that’s functionally identical. All spiritual practices work an effect on the mind and the mind-set, blurring the artificial boundaries of selfhood and awakening the practitioner (potentially, anyway) to the larger Identity that hides behind the normal waking concept of I. The range is wide but not unlimited.

Mythology varies more widely. All deities and other mythic images are metaphors for the indescribable, and while not every metaphor is apt or meaningful, the array of possibilities is huge. Some mythologies, such as that of Hinduism, are highly visual and colorful. Others, like that of Islam, avoid any concrete images of the holy and emphasize the ineffable nature of God. Christian mythology resides somewhere between that of Hinduism and Islam on this scale, while most Neopagan mythology leans more towards the Hindu end of rich, poetic and artistic imagining. Anyone who has walked a spiritual path for long and achieved any significant degree of awakening understands that all of these are valid approaches.

Philosophy brings us to areas of genuine disagreement, but even here the disputes lose their significance in the face of the fact that coherent knowledge that can be expressed in words is hard to come by when dealing with the cosmos in its entirety, or the mysteries of consciousness. Those are the subject matter of the spiritual. While we cannot approach these subjects directly and straightforwardly, we can do so sideways, as it were. The discussion and the debate help move that process. The richer the discussion, the better.

A tradition, like an exoteric religion, adheres to a single set of philosophical ideas, a single body of mythology, and an authorized set of spiritual practices, rejecting all ideas, myths, and practices which lie outside this compass.

Strong and Weak Traditional Exclusivity

The idea of traditional exclusivity — that only one tradition holds truth and all others are wrong — can take what might be called a strong form and a weak form.

Strong exclusivity is the idea that only one tradition is right for everyone. One finds this idea expressed by fundamentalist Christians and, in pure form, by no one else, although Muslims come fairly close to it, acknowledging some measure of validity to Christianity and Judaism but claiming that Islam holds a more complete truth and rejecting all religious ideas outside the Abrahamic lineage.

Spiritual traditionalists who have any awareness and have made any progress seldom express strong exclusivity. More common is weak exclusivity: the assertion that following one tradition or another exclusively is the right approach for everyone. Some tradition is right for you, even if it’s not our tradition. It’s as if they’re claiming that everyone should be a fundamentalist, while declining to specify what sort of fundamentalist one should be.

Is there any basis for this claim?

What a Tradition Offers Versus What it Costs

What a tradition offers — or claims to offer — is structure, reassurance, guidance, and externally-imposed discipline. (That’s if we dismiss any claims to exclusive possession of the Truth.) All of this contrasts with the non-aligned, who must build their own structures, learn by exploration and choose which guides to follow (if any) and when not to follow them, dive boldly into the spiritual waters seeking reassurance only from success, and create discipline from within.

Following a tradition is easier. It requires more in the way of obedience, and less in the way of courage. It provides a comforting voice when the doubts inevitably arise (there are always guardians at every gate). It sits best with those who are most comfortable accepting the authority of others. Those who find staying within the limits imposed by a tradition hardest are the wildly creative, the strong of will, the highly self-assured, and the boldly self-assertive.

The problem here is that those are also the very people who are most likely to achieve the most success on the spiritual paths. Take a look at the history of any great prophet or spiritual leader, including the founders of traditions or powerful voices within traditions. Without exception, these are people who had problems with religious authorities on the way. They ran away from home in youth, like the Buddha. They were crucified like Jesus, or had to flee for their lives like Muhammad.

There’s a reason for this. The cosmos is not tame. It is wild. And its voice is seldom heard in safe, secure settings.

Is there danger in striking out on one’s own, in refusing to be contained within the limits of a tradition? Of course there is, but not nearly as much danger as some would have us believe. Magic is powerful and potentially self-destructive stuff, but beginners in the art are seldom able to raise enough power to be truly self-destructive.

Beginners make mistakes, it’s true. Does that mean they need to be carefully guided away from error, and kept on the safe path? No, because making mistakes is the only way a person learns. The journey is the destination and the question is the answer, and no one grows without making that journey and asking the questions, seeking answers rather than being spoon-fed them.

So long as people tamely follow a tradition, spirituality will remain a safely compartmentalized part of their lives, never endangering their world-views — or expanding them beyond the comfort zone. Safe spirituality is impotent spirituality.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with learning from a spiritual tradition, and knowledge is always good. And for a time, it’s perfectly understandable that a person might need the structure and comfort that comes from belonging. But unless you feel that need (something I never have, but can vaguely comprehend), there’s nothing to be gained by defining oneself — which is to say, limiting oneself, as that is what “definition” means. Sooner or later, the child must leave the home.

Or else remain forever a child.

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A Sip of Fear: Publication Announcement

A Sip of FearA Sip of Fear, volume one of The Illuminated, is now live on Amazon and Smashwords. It should be up at most other e-book retain outlets within about a week. You can read the first three chapters in the three posts prior to this one, or by reading the free samples from the retailers.

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A Sip of Fear (Chapter Three)

A Sip of FearHere’s the third chapter of my new novel, A Sip of Fear, volume one of The Illuminated. A slight hitch happened on the way to publication, so the book will be available tomorrow rather than today. I’ll post links to the book at Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords in a new post then, and add it to the sideboard. I’m going through the Smashwords distribution system for other outlets (Barnes & Noble, Apple, etc.) so it should be available there within a week or so.

Meanwhile, hope you enjoy this third installment.

 

I encountered Ela-Tu for the first time when I was fifteen.

Magic fired up in my brain a few years before that, surrounding me like music that never stopped playing. Feelings coming my way from other people, auras and borderline realities seen from the corner of my eye, strands of fate plucked like chords or whispering secrets in my ear.

A lot of people have a little sensitivity to the Power. It’s much more common than most people realize. The sense you get when you’re being watched. The knowledge of who’s calling on the phone before you answer it. The fear that grabs the heart when a loved one is in danger, felt before the word comes. The desperate prayer in troubled times that gives birth to a miracle of shifted odds. Many people know such things. Magic in small amounts is nothing out of the ordinary.

I have more than a little of it. That’s rarer. Those with the ability to become virtuosos of the Art gulp down occult lore like drunkards. We can’t help it, even though the payoff is scant. Most of what’s written on the subject is complete crap made up by sensation-mongers and scam artists. A small subset covers better ground, but amounts to poor, if honest, understanding of one of the biggest puzzles life has to offer. Only a few rare tracts offer real, sound knowledge, because only a few of us have ever discovered that knowledge.

Among the cream of the magical world, the Illuminated are in a class by ourselves.

As far as I know, anyway. Maybe there are others out there that would make us look like amateurs, keeping themselves hidden from us because they can. I can’t speak about hypotheticals like that.

What I do know is that Illuminated always come from the ranks of those who have a special gift of magic and have studied the art, and nearly all Illuminated have at one time or another dabbled in the summoning of spirits. Now, spirits are of several kinds. Most spirits spring from the mind of the magic user in a form of controlled imagination that endows the creature with a measure of the summoner’s free will. That sort of spirit is useful for enhancing spells or managing them in an intelligent way while the mind of the magician is engaged elsewhere. But is the spirit real or imaginary? In the shifting world of the mental moonscapes, pregnant with sorcery, where meaning takes the place of mass and association replaces distance, everything is both and the question can’t be asked or answered.

But some spirits are different. Some touch on older and stronger magic, dangerous and seductive. Among those are the ones we call the Luminous. The Luminous defy all of the arts of ceremonial magic. You can’t command a Luminous by invoking names of God, sigils, or words of power. You can’t negotiate a pact with one of them; the terms of bonding are fixed, take it or leave it. The Luminous may come to your call, or you may call it without realizing what you’re doing, or it may summon you — or it may ignore you altogether and leave your efforts empty of result. But however it happens, meeting a Luminous changes your perspective on yourself, your life, and the cosmos, and after the bonding you are never the same.

For me, it happened when I played with spirit summoning, a teenager who knew almost nothing, certainly not what I was doing, and sent a call out to a spirit who could help me be a healer. No name. No idea what I would call. I just wanted to heal the sick and hurt. It seemed right.

For six weeks when I was fifteen, every night I drew a magic circle in the air with a consecrated wand and focused my will and desire. Every night I sent the call. Every night I went to sleep wondering why I bothered, why I persisted when nothing ever followed.

Until it did. Until she came.

When Ela-Tu answered my call, resistance was impossible. I fell in love. Since then, I have had more lovers than I can count — a side effect of bonding to a spirit of Life — but no matter who shares my bed, I have always been hers. I will be hers until I die.

ξ

Being Illuminated comes at a price and carries an obligation. I thought about that as I walked along Golden Gardens Drive in the misty rain the next day. Sometimes the obligation isn’t a problem. I didn’t mind looking for signs of illness in the trees and wildlife and healing it, or doing the same for people. But Erica walked beside me as a reminder of other obligations that weren’t so simple.

The Ice Woman wore a hooded jacket. Her glossy brown hair framed her face in tight curls under the hood and collected drops of rainwater to sparkle in the cool air. I turned to her and tried to smile. Then I noticed that some of those water drops had frozen, beading her hair like woven-in gems. My breath smoked. Hers didn’t. Not a good sign. She was angry.

She was always angry with me. By her lights, I deserved it. Most people would agree with her. The problem is, I didn’t have much choice in the matter. And it’s not as if she didn’t know that going into our relationship. She picked up on the thought without my having to say anything.

“I know,” she said. She looked at me. I felt the temperature drop. “I knew what you were. I asked you if you could be faithful to me.”

“And I told you probably not,” I said.

“Yes. I should have listened. I couldn’t. I —” She stopped and frowned. “You meant a lot more to me than you should have.”

I stopped to inspect the wide blackened hole in an oak tree, burned some years past by lightning. The tree had sprouted around the dead area and now it looked like a dark door into mystery. I smiled. The tree didn’t need my attention. I turned back to my ex-girlfriend, who did.

“You meant a lot to me, too, Erica. Really, you did. And you still do. I didn’t cheat on you because I didn’t care. I did it because —”

“I know, Gordon. You did it because Ela-Tu wanted you to. She never wants you to say no to anyone. She probably won’t be happy until you have a couple of dozen offspring.”

“She hasn’t pressured me about that, actually. Kind of surprising.” I touched her arm, and despite everything, felt a surge of desire. Ela-Tu still wasn’t talking to me, but her influence remained strong, and my powers hadn’t weakened. I stopped myself from pulling Erica into an embrace. She wouldn’t have appreciated it, and it would only have hurt her more. “I’m sorry, Erica.”

“I know that, too. But it doesn’t really help.” She sighed. “And I’m sorry, too, Gordon. You can’t help being what you are.” She paused. “How’s Rose?”

“The same.”

“You’ve cheated on her, too, haven’t you?”

“It’s not against our rules, Erica, so no, it’s not cheating. But if you mean I’ve had other women, yes. And one man. Rose understands. I’m not saying she never gets jealous, but she handles it.”

“She shouldn’t have to.”

I shrugged.

Erica sighed. “Right. She has you because she can handle it, and I don’t because I can’t. So it goes.” She shook her head. “Tell me about Shadow.”

“You’ve decided I’m not crazy?”

“No. But Marcus doesn’t think you are. He believes you, so I’m prepared to listen. Why do you think the bogey-man is real?”

I explained the evidence that Rose had found. “So the pattern shows that Shadow is real.”

“Wait a minute. What did she consider a Shadow sighting anyway?”

“Reports from people who saw him. Or said they did. What else?”

“Yeah, but nobody knows what he looks like.”

“There are stories. Someone who blends into the shadows, moves really fast, and kills Illuminated. He wears a black cloak and hood. He’s incredibly strong. He’s got an aura of death around him that any magician can see, Illuminated or not. Several of those elements together in a report equals Shadow. Except a few of them were false alarms.”

She shook her head. “I don’t know, Gordon. Have you considered the possibility that you’re both fooling yourselves? This seems like a pretty shaky basis —”

“Shh. Someone’s coming. Keep your voice down.”

A man approached us from ahead on the road. Erica nodded and continued in a whisper.

“Rose could have unconsciously created this pattern she saw out of background noise.”

“I doubt that, Erica. She’s a mentat. She doesn’t make mistakes that way. If it was me doing it, yeah, you might have a point.”

The man drew closer to us. He wore a black wool jacket with a hood. Something about him felt — off, wrong. His aura seemed dark and cold. I smelled a faint odor of decay.

Could this be Shadow? I doubted it. He moved like a normal man, and I couldn’t sense the signs of Illumination. But still, there was something about him.

As all this was running through my brain, the man stopped, hands in his pockets, about ten feet away.

“Gordon Greenbough?” he said.

“That’s me,” I said. “Who are you?”

He pulled his right hand from his coat pocket. A pistol came with it.

“Shadow says hello,” he said, and shot me twice in the gut. I fell. As the pain hit me in a delayed reaction, the road and the trees spun wildly and everything went dark.

ξ

When I woke up, I was still in the park. My head rested on something soft. A bit of exploration confirmed that it was Erica’s lap. With some embarrassment, I removed my hand from her thigh and sat up. That’s when I remembered getting shot.

A moment of panic ensued as I felt about my midsection, but the wounds had already healed. My clothes were a lost cause, bullet holes in my jacket and shirt and stained with lots of my blood. As I brushed myself off, two small objects fell to the ground. These proved to be mangled bullets, expelled from my body by muscle contractions as the healing power worked on me. I slipped them into my pocket for souvenirs.

“What happened?” I said.

“You got shot,” said Erica.

“Yeah, I remember that part.”

“I got the guy who shot you,” she said, nodding at something to my left. I looked that direction and saw a man maybe in his thirties, dressed in a black wool jacket with a hood. His body lay crusted with ice in a thin but solid layer, slowly melting into the undergrowth. His open eyes stared at the sky and his open mouth shrieked in silent shock. “I dragged him away from the road and then did the same to you. I know it’s not a good idea to move someone hurt as badly as you were, but I know how quickly you heal. He should have aimed for something that would kill you instantly, like a head shot.”

“If he was trying to kill me. I’m not sure he was.”

“Maybe he was just a bad shot.” She stood up and brushed leaves and twigs off her jacket. “You look a mess, Gordon.”

“Thanks for saving me. I’ve never been shot before. It feels weird.”

“Weird?”

“Well, it hurt. Now I feel kind of itchy. And a little woozy. Probably the blood loss. Also I need a shower and to change clothes.”

“What should we do with him?” she said, nodding at the corpse.

“I don’t know. He’s kind of — I mean, if they find him before he thaws out, that could be a problem.”

“Yeah.”

“Let me try something.”

I knelt beside the corpse and put my hands on his jacket, reaching inside him with my magical senses and the special health-sense that Ela-Tu gave me. He was dead, of course, no way I could heal that, but plenty of things were still alive inside him, cells of his body that hadn’t died yet and bacteria. I encouraged them to greater activity. I also pulled power up from the ground, which I often did when healing living things. In a little under a minute, the ice covering his body started to crack. The melting accelerated. Pretty soon most of the ice was gone, the ground under the corpse just a little damper than the surrounding turf.

“There,” I said, standing up. “He’ll still be a medical mystery, but it won’t be as blatant. Let’s get out of here.”

“Do you have anything to change into?”

“No.”

“Here.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a spare windbreaker. “It’s a little small for you, but it should cover the bloodstains.”

“Okay. Thanks.” I slipped into the windbreaker, which was a little small for me as she said, but not too bad. Erica is nearly as tall as I am. I could wear her clothes in a pinch. I’d done it before.

“I guess I believe in Shadow now,” Erica said as we walked back to our cars.

“That couldn’t have been him, though.” I frowned.

“No, I don’t think I could have killed Shadow that easily. He was probably a mind-control victim. Spooky.”

“No kidding. This whole thing is spooky.”

“Shadow must know who you are, Gordon. He knows your name. That guy asked if you were you. Right?”

“Yeah. That’s pretty scary.”

She bit her lip. “I don’t want you to die.”

“Thanks.”

“I mean it. There have been times I was so mad at you I thought I wanted you dead, but I don’t. Do you think Shadow is aiming for you? Has he picked you as his victim?”

“I don’t know. Pretty cocky to announce it like that if he is.”

“Yeah.” She folded her arms. Her brow furrowed. “He feeds on fear as well as blood. That’s what the stories say. Maybe he’s trying to scare you.”

“Doing a good job of it, then.”

“What are we going to do, Gordon?”

“Find him. Stop him. Kill him if we can.”

“How?”

We came out of the park to where my green rebuilt Karmann Ghia was parked. Erica’s SUV was right behind it.

“I don’t know how,” I said. “Everyone has weaknesses, though. We’ll find Shadow’s.”

“Okay.” She smiled. “I’ll call you later. Just to make sure you’re all right.”

“Thanks.”

I got in and started my car. My hands trembled so badly I had to take several deep breaths before I could make the key do its job.

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