“I am Mara the Huntress and I Hunt alone.”
British writer Roz Kaveney is best known for her poetry and her critical works about pop culture and TV shows (I have on good authority that Reading The Vampire Slayer—The New, Updated Unofficial Guide To Buffy And Angel is pretty good). Rituals is her debut novel, and the first book in a four-part epic fantasy series following two female protagonists in alternating storylines.
One of them is told in the first person by Mara, an immortal huntress who walks through shadows to fulfill her self-ascribed mission to protect the weak against the strong and to stand against anyone who uses the Rituals of Blood to become a god through killing innocents. Her narrative is one of mythological worldbuilding through time as Mara has been present since the dawn of time at key moments of history. She was there as the Aztecan Empire fell; she there when her two apprentices, Nameless and Star, decided to go solo and become the Jehovah and Lucifer we have come to known.
The other storyline is a third-person narrative that takes place in a more or less contemporary setting (from the late ’80s onward) following Emma, a young woman who finds herself suddenly thrust into a hitherto unknown paranormal life where vampires, elves, gods and other assorted mythological figures are all real and living side by side with humans. Aided by her ghostly lover Caroline, Emma becomes an important figure in that metier by parlaying potentially bloody disagreements, talking her way out of unthinkable situations with diplomacy (and only a few times with bloodshed).
The first thing to be said about Rituals is how this is a ludicrously fun book. There is a scene that highlights this perfectly as Emma and Caroline are inside a museum trying to protect a newly awakened faun from a couple of righteous angels-for-hire, with the help of a crocodile god. Whereas in the other storyline, Mara is having a drink with Crowley, telling her story and poking fun at gods and religions (needless to say, the concept and tone of the book will not be for everybody).
Rituals is a smart book that shows the author’s knowledge of different eras and of different mythologies and with a decidedly feminist bent that features empowered, strong-willed queer women. It is worth noting that Emma and Mara live their empowerment in different ways, each experiencing bloodshed, love, loss, violence and horrors in a manner that speaks volumes about who they are. There is a timelessness to Mara’s narrative that works really well to the more grounded Emma.
The juxtaposing of both stories is also an interesting one in the way the paths that both women walk are different but not entirely separate. Mara and Emma cross paths only once in the beginning during the bloody event that sets Emma’s storyline in motion—but characters from Mara’s arc slowly begin to appear in Emma’s.
Rituals is fun, sexy and funny without ever losing touch with the horrors and violence that inevitably occur in their line of duty (one of the most haunting moments is when we learn that Emma carries her dead with her—the ghosts of the people that died as a direct result of her failures).
But it is not without its flaws: The events that take place in either storyline seem—at least for now—episodic, which gives an impression of randomness. All the more so when considering the rushed way that some of the events are resolved, particularly in Emma’s storyline toward the ending. In fact, each individual chapter reads almost like a novella, as they are independent, long and almost without breaks; but given that this is only Book 1 in the series, I am hopeful that there is an overall arc that will connect all the dots.
Another jarring point: In one of Emma’s chapters, she develops a romantic relationship with a young vampire named Elodie who is about to enter a marriage of convenience to an Elf. Elodie and Emma have a crush on each other but can’t really act on it due to the political consequences that could arise from it. Emma attends the wedding and it is then revealed that Elodie is being used by her family as a pawn and she is taken over by a nosferatu in order to become a weapon of violence—her body is changed, her mind is all but gone. This thankfully is never shown as anything other than a violent, despicable act.
Emma’s way of saving Elodie then, comes at odds with the rest of the feminist undercurrent of the book: Emma wrestles her, throws Elodie to the ground, forcefully holding her down and proceeds to “make love” to her to “bring Elodie back.” So she saves Elodie by literally sexually assaulting her at a moment in which she couldn’t consent. It is never addressed as such, though, and it made me really queasy in the way that it was shown to be a “cute” take on the “true love’s kiss that broke spells” and not as the revolting intrusion that it is. This is the one really heart-breaking misstep in an otherwise strong book—I will be reading the second book, Reflections (already out), and report back soon.
I cannot finish this review without mentioning the elephant in the room: the atrocious cover. What in the world was this publisher thinking?
In Book Smugglerish, an amused 7 out of 10.