The Book of Spirits
Sequels to best-selling books have proven the bane of many authors. After his debut novel, The Book of Shadows, which introduced a legion of fans to the hermaphrodite witch Herculine, James Reese faced a challenging task. A sumptuous gothic tale of the supernatural set in eighteenth-century France, that novel ended with Herculine embarking on a voyage to the New World at the behest of her mentor, the fabled Sebastiana d’Azur. Fans had to wait three years for the sequel, Book of Spirits, to arrive.
Here, Herculine lands in Virginia only to fall passionately in love with a violet-eyed slave, Celia, with whom she soon becomes entangled. Reese is an undisputed master of prose, his facility for language both subtle and rare; he convincingly depicts a dark world of magic, bondage, and carnal obsession during the era of slavery in the United States. His research is impeccable, the historical characters seamlessly entwined with unforgettable fictional ones, amongst whom is the sage Mammy Venus. Unfortunately, his Herculine – despite her encounters with the dead and various ghouls, such as the rancid spirit of Edgar Allan Poe’s mother – seems more than a little perplexed not only about the object of her affection, but indeed about everything she spent so much effort seeking to discover in the first book. And without a true quest to keep her, and us, focused, the novel revolves around a series of graphic, and at times gratuitous, descriptions of unusual encounters that are not for the faint of heart. It offers a glimpse of the sublime when Herculine finds herself among the gloriously human and humane witches of the Cyprian House brothel in New York, only to careen into a bewildering and disjointed labyrinth involving a hunt for the runaway Celia, the lost fountain of youth, and Florida’s Native American battles.