Before I decided to review this book I checked if it was ‘spiritual fantasy’, a genre which generally does not agree with me, particularly if self-published. Spiritual fantasy authors often think they have something ‘important’ to say are at the forefront of my mind when I remember Phil Rickman‘s heartfelt words words:
I mean, have you read some of this crap? The most embarrassing thing is that people who can’t write are usually the very last to realise they can’t write. Even if you scream in their faces, YOU CAN’T FUCKING WRITE! they just think you’re jealous because they’ve mastered in a couple of weeks something that took you years of heartache, false-starts and terrible disappointments.
Fortunately this book is not ‘spiritual fantasy’, Josephine can write and is big enough to take a few criticisms now and then (she lives on Dartmoor and is probably kept by cats that see off the Baskerville hound before breakfast). Not that much criticism is called for at all. The book is a wonderful, engaging, well written example of the better class of occult fiction. Based in part on real, strange and uncanny ‘coincidences’ in Josephine’s life and magical development, it has much to offer both the casual reader and seasoned magician.
The Last Scabbard is comprised of three sections, or books, those of Sword, Stone and Judgement. The novel is broad and deep in its scope, stretching from mythic prehistory until the present day with notable events integrated along the way – including the foundation of the Golden Dawn. The fictional account of this offered by Josephine is bloody marvellous, and has to be read to be believed. It includes the full list of known historical characters, some notable Franco interlopers and a few fictional folk. I loved the inclusion of ‘poor sick Mr Firth’ of Sheffield, offering possible links to Dion Fortune in any future novels, which I am sure there will be. The ceremonial magic to establish the Order in Josephine’s account does not go well:
Beings passed from the inner worlds to the outer worlds, passing through the doorway created by the sword. But the doorways were not filtered by careful magic, and terrible powers passed into the room before flowing out into the world…There was no filter, there were no guardians; no one was taking notice as the greatest disaster of modern time was secretly and quietly unfolding…
Soon Europe would be huddled in fear as these powers manifested themselves through humanity in the form of world wars, sadistic serial killers, vicious pandemics and untold greed…1888 would be a year that everyone would remember as the year that first London, and then Britain lost its innocence.
Fiction it may be, but there are important principles and concerns here and there is clearly not enough ‘careful magic’ being carried out in today’s magical and Pagan communities. Nor are there enough humble folk carefully trained to discern such things, as the single of twelve ‘watchers’ in this fictional ceremony, a female magician who has the Sight to see the ‘terrible dark beings’ let loose upon the world. It is important that this is a woman, as the damage and egotism which causes havoc in the novel is connected with malformed and self focused masculinity, divorced from the body and the Land. This form of masculinity is summed up in this stark and moving paragraph when one of the early characters rests after sexually forcing himself upon a dependant woman clairvoyant, used as much for her Sight as her body:
He flopped his hand to her body in a gesture designed to build bridges where there were none. His hand fell to her public hair which was smeared with the juice of his hating and the lubrication of a soul unloved. He removed his hand as if stung. He found such fluids as distasteful as he found himself.
Josephine explores this theme of warped masculinity and a responsive femininity with deftness, avoiding stereotypes and creating a wonderful lead character, a woman of profound connection and individuality, Lumis. This exploration alone would mark the novel as a must read for all male magicians, and the warning from an inner, feminine source given to the main character is as true in the real magical community and world as in Josephine’s fictional one:
Harken to the true heart of a man who loves nothing but himself, for he shall be the downfall of all that is beautiful in this world.
The calamity caused by the ill formed creation of the Golden Dawn is part of a thread of the abuse of power, misogyny and ego-damage that stretches across time, with reincarnation, soul groups and attraction acting as a pivot. Such themes are normally handled terribly badly by occultists who turn their hand to fiction writing, and often make me wince. Josephine avoids this trap by crafting her writing to a fine degree and allowing her own inspirational forces and intuition to have voice and place. There are passages within the novel that moved and connected me to a deep inner reality as fully and clearly as Dion Fortune at her best.
Another brilliant strength of the novel is that Josephine has not produced a simple good versus evil story, with all she personally valorises at one end of the spectrum and the godly unwashed at the other. True, the character of one of the central ‘baddies’ could be more developed, but the narrative itself is subtle and complex intertwined with some truly impressive myth making and storytelling. All is seamlessly beyond the individual, yet intimately dependent on individual choices and actions, from incarnation to incarnation in an ever-flowing outpouring that seeks to express the deepest spiritual truth.
Josephine’s writing is skillful and deft, and while the book is not in the Booker Prize category it is far better than the normal range of occult fiction selling today. I was completely drawn in and lost in several parts of the book and simply stunned by some phrases:
Within me is exhaustion. Within me is a pain so profound I call it God.
True to the magical worldview, a goodly part of the book takes place within the inner realms, though this is not immediately apparent. And this section of the book explores and enlivens traditional Qabalistic knowledge wonderfully. It is a delight to see several excellent twists in this section, including a complete reversal of the power relations between a magician and a servitor as Truth dawns. It made me smile and nod :)
Overall this is a great novel, which will teach, inform, inspire, and entertain the reader. It certainly did for me, and I await further novels in the same series with eagerness. It has high production values, an easy to read layout and font and truly magical cover art by Josephine’s partner, Stuart Littlejohn. It is highly recommended for all magicians, Pagans and others interested in these themes. Congratulations, Josephine :)