I cannot approach this book with any kind of objectivity. I like a lot of books. I love a lot of books. But I fall in love with a particular book only maybe once or twice a decade. It happened for me on page 11 of A Modern Witch after reading this sentence:
Nell wondered what you could get for a four year-old witchling if you sold him on eBay.
The problem with falling in love with anything is, of course, that any flaws get embraced as part of the enchantment, and there is absolutely no reason to expect that anyone else would similarly fall in love. I often worry about overselling a book to any audience, and Pagans, in particular, generally want to make up their own minds about everything. (Honestly, that fierce psychic independence can be exhausting!)
And so I cannot review this book in the usual fashion. All I can do is report my experience, and try to work out why it had such a powerful effect on me. You may not like the book at all. I suspect, however, that there is a commonality that we all share in what brought us to Paganism in the first place that might provide a basis for you to fall in love with this book as well.
Part of the joy here is that it is telling that hoary old story of a person unexpectedly discovering that she has magical powers, and that there is a secret group of people in the world that share those powers. I probably reviewed a dozen books for this blog that contain those tropes. Harry Potter shares those tropes. (I love Harry Potter, but I am not in love with Harry Potter.) The real antecedent of A Modern Witch are Zenna Henderson’s stories of The People. (I am afraid that Henderson’s stories are being forgotten which is sad. They were, surprisingly, cited by the scholar James Robinson as a modern example of Gnostic literature in his introduction to the first published English translation of the Nag Hammadi Library. Henderson’s books were once popular enough to serve as the basis for a 1972 TV movie starring William Shatner. I saw it when it was first broadcast, and it’s probably not worth seeking out unlike the short stories.) The difference is that the secret community of witches in Harry Potter is not necessarily friendly or trustworthy: Harry enters into a community that has been ravaged by conflict and a continued struggle for power. In Henderson’s and Geary’s worlds, the magical community exists in some tension with the rest of the real world, but is multigenerational and, generally, warm, familial and supportive. Both Henderson and Geary capture that overwhelming sense of coming home and finding your place in a magical community. And being loved and embraced for that.
(Sigh. Okay. So when I was five or six my parents used to watch The Avengers, and there was an episode that featured the characters going down into a grave where some wild, Mod party was going on in a secret complex below the graveyard. I had a dream shortly thereafter in which I similarly entered a grave and discovered that I was part of a secret group of people who were, I don’t know, working to save the world or something. I wanted so much to go back to that dream the next night which, of course, I couldn’t. Henderson’s stories serve as a gateway back for me. As do the magical rituals of my Trad. As does A Modern Witch.)
A Modern Witch is kind of an extended, Techno-Pagan version of one of Zenna Henderson’s stories. We are introduced to a small group of witches chatting online. Nell and her brother Jamie have built and operate a hugely successful MMORPG called “Enchanter’s Realm”. Nell has coded up a spell that will find another witch and bring him or her into chat, and so we meet Lauren a real estate agent in Chicago who was just shopping online for milk and had no idea that she has any magical powers at all when she is pulled into the chatroom. Jamie is sent from Berkeley to assess Lauren’s powers, and Lauren is introduced to world of magic that she had no idea existed.
There is not a whole lot of dramatic conflict in the novel. Lauren has her life in Chicago, and she’s swept into this amazing group of witches in Berkeley where she is given some basic training. Will she choose to stay with her agency and continue her life near her best friend and Yoga instructor, Nat? Or will her new-found powers and friends draw her to the Left Coast? You probably will not find the answers to those questions all that shocking.
Nevertheless, Geary genuinely taps into that sense of the witching community as an ideal. It’s perfect love and perfect trust. It involves a complete span of ages and gifts, and people being cherished for their gifts whether they have magical powers or not. It’s about family. Friendship. Elite communities of amazing people doing wonderful things for and with each other. It is Pagan.
Does the book peg the 100% mark on the Paganometer? Interestingly, the thealogy is occluded at best in this first book of the series. The witches do celebrate all the traditional Sabbats, and every spell ends, “As I will, so mote it be.” But the word “Goddess” does not appear in the text at all, and neither does any other named God or Goddess. There is, however, there is at least one beautiful moment that suggests a bit more than the otherwise secular tone of the novel. That being said, the book pretty much nails the extremes for the other parts of the Paganometer. It’s sex-positive (though there are no on-screen sex scenes), eco-positive, egalitarian (no one’s race is mentioned, and so the characters might be all white, but the sense is that race is largely irrelevant to this particular story), and wildly magical.
The magic system is a bit idiosyncratic, but fun nonetheless. The system is probably overly structured with a strict classification of the types of available powers and how they work together. Circle-casting requires exactly fourteen people, and so on. Charmingly, though, Geary gives lots examples of how the witches play with and ignore those structures. Like Henderson’s stories and Bradley’s Darkover novels, Geary captures the easy intimacy of telepaths working magic together and establishing appropriate boundaries and shields. She creates a world that is easy to long for, and hard to leave while you inhabit it.
Geary has been cranking out these novels at an unbelievable pace over the past year. This first book came out about a year ago, and she followed it with two others in the series, and then started a second series which takes place between the first two books. To date she has published six books in this universe in the past year. Needless to say, I’ll be posting up reviews, if not raves, as I work through them.