Review: The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher

[tw: rape, sexism, racism, homophobia]

As you probably already know, occasionally I like to dip a toe in other genres, but one genre I’ve never really touched is the Western. Westerns, to me, have always seemed to be very masculine and often reliant on some pretty racist tropes, and I’m just really not that interested in the Wild West in general (Canadian frontier life played out differently than it did for Americans, is my understanding.)

However, this title caught my eye, and not just because I found the cover visually stunning, but due to a review on one of my favourite social justice review blogs, Fangs for the Fantasy, who seemed impressed by the level of diversity in the book.

The town of Golgotha is a cattle town in the middle of the pitiless 40-Mile Desert that is host to many secrets and mysterious characters. The sheriff bears the mark of the noose around his neck. Some say he’s a dead man whose time has not yet come, his deputy is kin to coyotes, the mayor guards a hoard of mystical treasures, a banker’s wife is a member of a secret order of pirates and assassins, and a newcomer, a boy with a dark secret, possesses an eye encased in clockwork that is not of this world. It will be up to them, saints and sinners alike, to confront the darkness that is spilling out of the abandoned silver mine overlooking the town, or Golgotha, and all of Creation itself, will never see another day.

The story of The Six-Gun Tarot is told from a variety of (third person) perspectives. In some respects it feels as if the town itself is a character, a place where salt circles and strange rituals exist side by side with church socials (or basically what being a closeted Pagan in a Christian family is like). The cast itself is large-ish but not so large that you need a list of dramatis personae at the start of the book, and even the characters who don’t get a lot of focus are memorable in some way. From the shopkeeper who can’t get over his wife’s death to the incredibly racist doctor (who actually isn’t a doctor, just the closest thing Golgotha has to a doctor) and they all have their own issues to deal with over the course of the book. The mayor. Harry, struggles to reconcile his good, wholesome, Mormon, family-oriented image (including juggling the needs of his two wives) with the fact that he is gay and in love. The banker’s wife, Maude, regrets losing the independence she had when she was younger by falling in love, and worries that her daughter might walk down the same road someday. The deputy, Mutt, faces discrimination from the town’s residents and ostracism from his tribe for his parentage.

I’m including this review under the tarot category not just because of the book’s title, but because each chapter title is a tarot card. Tarotists might enjoy playing “spot the way the card is used in this chapter”. Sometimes it’s obvious, other times less so. Also, pay attention to when the book uses major arcana cards vs. when it uses minors or court cards. Overall it adds an interesting layer of symbolism to the book. The mythology of the book, much like tarot, is very Christian, but eventually opens up to encompass many different traditions in the same way that tarot readers of any faith (or non-faith) can pick up a deck that speaks to them and use it.

Speaking of discrimination, 19th century attitudes towards race, gender, and sexuality are all on display (including use of period appropriate but racist language like “Chinaman”) but what sets this book apart from other books who would include it for “realism” is that none of it goes unchallenged. The aforementioned doctor who goes on a racist rant that could literally have been lifted from a book on eugenics is called on it. Mutt, trapped between two worlds, proudly claims his derogatory name, Maude figuratively and literally rescues her daughter and herself from the patriarchy. Interestingly, one might expect the sheriff, probably the most privileged of the bunch, to be the main character, but he’s actually in the background for the most part, although he does pop up from time to time to make a reference to a supernatural creature or phenomenon that they dealt with in the past. I really liked these moments, because it adds weight to the idea that Golgotha is an odd place where odd things happen.

There were a few things I didn’t like about the book. I thought the Chinese characters could have been fleshed out more, especially given how often they are put down by the white majority in Golgotha. I also thought the description of Ch’eng Huang was straight out of Kill Bill, although I’m glad the author didn’t fall back on the tired old “foreign character speaks broken English” trope. I also felt like the entire subplot with Auggie and the widow could have been cut out and you wouldn’t have missed much, although the resolution is kind of sweet (and also a bit creepy).

As I mentioned before, racism, homophobia, and sexism are very real things in this book. One important background character owned slaves, the Chinese and Mutt experience racism and the characters use terms to refer to other races that would be considered inappropriate these days. Women experience domestic abuse. Harry is called a “sodomite”. There’s also one disturbing scene involving, of all things, tentacle rape, which is the first I’ve seen of it outside of Japanese media. Other reviewers have pointed out that the treatment of Holly/the Black Madonna, a frustrated woman turned antagonist who is incredibly sexually aggressive, to be problematic, which I can definitely see.

Overall, I liked The Six-Gun Tarot despite its flaws. It read more like an urban fantasy with more saloons than what I would think of as a Western. I’m eager to see where the series goes when the sequel comes out in October.

Deck Review: The Vintage Wisdom Oracle by Victoria Moseley

I knew I needed this deck the moment the first images were posted on U.S. Games’ Facebook page. The term “vintage” is applied to a great many things these days. I’ve even seen it applied to my favourite raisin pudding recipe.

Seriously, it’s a delicious pudding.

In any case, the Vintage Wisdom Oracle is a deck that combines photographs, paintings, and drawings in collage to form its images. You might recognize John Waterhouse’s paintings or the enigmatic gaze of Mata Hari. Nymphs cavort while their mortal counterparts sit in quiet contemplation. Animals (particularly butterflies) feature in many cards, as do flowers. The colour palette is generally soft (with a few exceptions) and many of the images are sepia photographs with splashes of colour, adding a touch of the dramatic to the luscious imagery. Even the packaging has an air of luxury (silver gilt edges!). If you’re the sort of person with a more conventionally “feminine” aesthetic–flowers, pearls, soft colours, you will probably find a lot to like in this deck.

The cards measure 5 5/8” x 3 ¾” which makes them practically impossible to shuffle with my small hands. The upside is that it’s easier to make out details in the art. Each image is surrounded by a border in gray, mauve, or dark blue. The card backs have a woman’s face in the centre surrounded by a design that reminds me of an old jewelry box, which I feel is appropriate for a beautiful deck with a very old feel. The only words on each card are the card titles. They are non-reversible but the companion book indicates you can read with reversals if you find they are helpful.

The arrangement of the cards in the companion book is in alphabetical order with no images of the cards, only text. There are also a few original spreads:  the four leaf clover spread, the spyglass spread, the penny farthing spread, the walled garden spread, and the chatelaine spread, using four, four, seven, nine, and six cards respectively. I love it when deck creators make an effort to create their own spreads instead of just relying on one card pulls and three card spreads with maybe one spread that’s specifically designed for the deck.

It took me a long time to write this review because I was finding it difficult to connect to this deck. The art is beautiful, but I didn’t find that the messages I was receiving from it were relevant to the question I had asked. Today I happened to draw “Discernment” which is about not dividing your attention too much, and I would say that’s relevant to how I’ve been feeling lately.

I have two major criticisms of this deck. The first is that the characters can seem a bit “stiff” (no doubt because they are from older paintings and photographs). The lady in the “Adventure” card, for instance, doesn’t quite evoke a sense of joy or excitement. I didn’t feel like some of the cards really meshed with the description in the book. The “Healing” card features a vintage “medicine woman” (who is white, so I assume she’s supposed to be a doctor or an herbalist), but the way she is dressed (in pearls) and her expression don’t say “Healer” to me. In fact, she looks like a younger version of my deceased great aunt, dressed for a night on the town. I also felt like this is one of those decks that focuses more on, say, self-actualization than practical matters. It might be of more use to some as a tool for meditation or contemplation than an actual “reading” deck.

The other major criticism I have of this deck is that there are only two cards with characters of colour on them, all Japanese. The companion book refers to these Japanese ladies as “geishas”. I have no way of verifying if the paintings are indeed of geishas, but it struck me as potentially problematic that Japanese women are singled out in this way in an otherwise lovely deck.

Make no mistake, this deck has stunning art and I don’t think I have a more stunning box for any of my decks, but despite its beauty it took me quite some time to connect to it.

Review: The Way of the Hedge Witch: Rituals and Spells for Hearth and Home

This book was recommended by a fellow Vanatruar, Cena Nico quite some time ago, but I was never really interested in it until now. I’ve been feeling very domestic lately, and since my mother’s passing in January, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the kitchen making things that I never had a chance to make and trying new foods. I’m actually typing this from my new computer room. I still have a bit of work to do cleaning it up, but right now I have enough space to work at the computer.

The Way of the Hedge Witch is focused on making the domestic (particularly the kitchen) sacred. The title may be a little misleading, as it doesn’t focus on hedge witchery in the sense of journeying between worlds, but the care of the home and hearth (in this respect, the book could have been called “Way of the Hearth Witch” and avoided any confusion). The book covers topics like working with the spiritual hearth, hearth deities and spirits, magic in the kitchen, hearth deities and spirits, and spells, rituals, and recipes (which includes oil and incense recipes as well as recipes for stews and baked goods).

Since this is a book about home-based spirituality, it’s no surprise that the book focuses on simple rituals and practicality. It’s refreshing to read a book that doesn’t disparage modern technology and insist that everything be done by hand. Murphy-Hiscock recommends blessing the appliances you commonly use and even lists correspondences for common kitchen tools. It’s also refreshing to read a chapter on food that doesn’t preach to you about how so much of the food we eat is killing us and we all need to switch to a paleo diet or the popular diet du jour.  I also like that the language used in the book is religiously neutral, for the most part, and the author encourages you to adapt the rituals to fit your own spiritual framework. The material in this book could easily be adapted to suit the needs of Vanatruar or Heathens.

If you’re looking for information about using a cauldron in your practice in particular, you might want to give this book a look. I’ve never really considered using a cauldron as part of my practice due to not being allowed to burn incense or candles in the house, but because of this book I’ve thought about picking one up if only to serve as a reminder of the significance of the hearth (and the hearth was very significant to the Norse). Most of the material in the book assumes you have a cast iron cauldron, but the author gives correspondences for other cauldron materials as well, including brass, copper, and aluminum cauldrons.

If I had a complaint about the book, it would be that most of the material is focused on the cauldron and the hearth as the center of praxis in the home. There’s not much on the rest of the house, which strikes me as odd for a book about home-based rituals. It’s worth noting that this book started as a book on cauldrons and their use in magic specifically, so it’s understandable that it would be limited in scope. There’s also an assumption that the reader will share what they are doing with their family, which is obviously difficult to impossible for closeted readers. I would also take the chapter on deities and spirits with a grain of salt as their descriptions in this book are at best a brief glimpse of complex beings.

This is a short book and a good resource for those of you who are looking to integrate spirituality into mundane tasks like cooking and cleaning or for integrating the use of a cauldron into your practice in particular. I found it was pleasantly devoid of preachy writing when it came to the use of magical tools and in the chapter on food. It’s not a definitive guide to domestic spirituality and magic, but it’s a good starting point.

Review: Norse Goddess Magic: Trancework, Mythology, and Ritual

This review is going to be a bit short since there’s only so much i can say about this book.

This is one of those books (under the title Magic of the Norse Goddesses) that seemed to pop up everywhere on recommended reading lists but wasn’t available by the time I had the money to pay for it because the publisher closed up shop. Luckily, it’s been reprinted, so now I’m able to finally give a review of it.

As the title suggests, Norse Goddess Magic is about trancework and ritual focused on goddesses within the Norse/Germanic pantheon, particularly Frigga and her Handmaidens. The book is divided into two parts: the first part deals with mythology and how to do trancework in general, while the second part, which takes up the bulk of the book, gives each goddess her own chapter, and includes lore, the author’s UPG, and suggestions for doing a ritual to honor each goddess.

If you’re looking to connect with Frigga and the Handmaidens and you don’t know where to begin or looking for UPG regarding same, this might be a book you want to add to your wishlist. Another thing I liked about this book was that she encourages using multiple techniques to bring yourself into a trance state instead of just saying to do one particular thing, remarking that sometimes it takes multiple techniques for her to trance out and sometimes she can do it in a moment. I feel like the books I’ve read on the subject usually only have the one technique and never combine or even mention using multiple techniques to obtain a trance state if you’re having trouble. I thought some of the UPG was interesting (her gnosis regarding Eir patching up Tyr after he lost his hand was intriguing) and the discussing regarding “women’s work” back then and how essential it was to the community and our modern perception of “women’s work” today is a discussion we desperately need to have in Heathenry.

My main issues with this book is that the sources the author uses are old and probably considered outdated. For one thing, she seems to rely on Grimm a lot for her information, and the general consensus is that Grimm was great at collecting fairy tales but not so great at etymology. Although not a criticism, this is definitely not a reconstructionist book (it uses the Hammer Rite as a pre-trancework ritual, for one) although I found the author was pretty good about differentiating between what was her own experience and what was actually in the lore, although she does not use the term UPG to describe her own experiences.

This is more my personal preference but I feel as if this work could have featured more lesser known goddesses (which is the author’s stated intent), goddesses like Idunn and Sif don’t have a lot of information on them either. It would have been nice to see a book that features a variety of Norse goddesses, and I feel like the title and the back cover blurb is a bit misleading in that respect (although I understand that the new publisher probably wanted to keep the title as close to the previous edition as possible). I also didn’t agree with her assertion that Freyja is a goddess of surgeries and other “invasive” medical practices (I’ve always seen Freyja as more of a naturopath or a fan of the “whiskey and sleep cures everything” school of medicine).

I think this would be a good book for someone who is specifically looking for UPG on Frigga and the Handmaidens or as a general guide on how to make nice with the goddesses, but if you are already familiar with these goddesses and trancework, this book will be nothing you haven’t seen before, and to be completely honest, I’d recommend Trance-Portation by Diana Paxson over this for the complete newbie to trancework. It’s also important to keep in mind that this is not a scholarly or reconstructionist book and the sources it uses are quite old, so read with some salt handy.