The concluding volume of the Herculine trilogy (The Book of Spirits, 2005, etc.), in which a hermaphroditic witch explores her powers and seeks her place in the world.
Reese’s mid-19th-century tale of love and witchcraft is somewhat of a linguistic conundrum. On one hand, his lush, elegant prose saunters across the page, inviting readers to linger over every word. On the other, that same languorous pacing makes the few events that occur far more exciting in summary than in actual practice. The story begins with Herculine’s journey to meet Queverdo Brú, a mysterious monk she’s been instructed to find by her fellow witch Sebastiana. Traveling as a man to avoid trouble, Herculine falls in love with young Calixto and uses her arcane powers to save him from a painful violation at the hands of a nefarious seaman. Upon arriving in Havana, Herculine promises to explain herself to Calixto, but she botches the attempt and he sails away. She then focuses on finding Brú, who turns out to be a malevolent alchemist intent on using Herculine’s hermaphroditic qualities to create a Philosopher’s Stone. His scheme leaves her near death, but Calixto conveniently returns just in time to save her. The couple flees Havana and reunites with Sebastiana, who is traveling with two children who resemble Herculine—products of a night of passion she shared with a woman ten years before (though her female parts are infertile, her male apparatus is, apparently, quite potent). A drawn-out dénouement follows, during which Herculine and company set up shop as ship salvagers, using their powers in a decidedly lackluster way to make their fortune and channel money into combating slavery. Their use of magic in such a mundane manner is a microcosm of the narrative itself: filled with potential, but limited by a lack of imagination.
Pretty prose, but the true magic lies in the narrative’s ability to make scheming alchemists, steamy hermaphrodite sex and witchcraft much less exciting than they sound.