Roz Kaveney’s Rituals occupies a very interesting space that not much else has been interested in exploring. It’s a little like Good Omens, and a little like Waiting for the Galactic Bus, and now that I have three of them I can declare them a genre—and say this is a splendid example of “Witty Blasphemy.” Or maybe “Adorable Blasphemy” would be a better name?
Rituals begins with quotes from Nietzsche and Cindy Lauper, and that sets the tone perfectly for what follows.
Mara the Huntress, a powerful being from the dawn of time (she doesn’t like being called a goddess), meets Aleister Crowley one day on a Mediterranean island. They drink together, and she tells him a story. The book alternates between Mara’s first person reminiscences of her centuries of life as a god-killer and the third person story of Emma Jones, an Oxford undergrad in the eighties who gets caught up with strange beings and deals with it, mostly, by talking to them. Along the way we have cameos by Jehovah (“the best of a very bad bunch”), his brother Lucifer, Montezuma, the Egyptian crocodile god Sobekh, skateboarding art snob biker drag queen muggers, and Marilyn Monroe.
Out of control, this would be a huge hodge-podge of mixed-up mythology, but Kaveney never lets it get out of control for an instant. There’s a firm sense throughout Rituals that Kaveney knows exactly what she’s doing and you can trust her to get it right. It’s witty and clever and hits that note where precise observation of how people act is widened into how immortals would act in these circumstances, and how people would act if all this stuff turned out to be real. She takes things seriously and works through them and that allows her to be both moving and very funny.
The bit that had me giggling uncontrollably both times I read it was Jehovah informing Mara that there were new lands to the west:
“How does that work then?” I inquired. “Are you pretending to the angels that you kept quiet about them? Or merely that you mislaid them in a fit of absent-mindedness?”
If you like that, you will like the rest of it.
It’s so accomplished and confident and engaging that it’s hard to believe that this is a first novel, but it is. Kaveney is known for her poetry, criticism and books on pop culture, but this is her first long form fiction. It’s going to be very long—while Rituals stands alone perfectly well it’s the first volume of four, with the overall title of “Rhapsody of Blood,” and I found myself wishing they were all out now so I could rush through them all without waiting.
When I stopped to think about it, reading it for a second time in a couple of months, there’s a lot of Mara and Emma fighting different kinds of monsters and winning. The experience of reading it isn’t as episodic or formulaic as that suggests. In many ways I shouldn’t like this book—it has vampires, though fortunately only briefly, and some of it edges onto horror, a genre I dislike so much I forget it exists. But in fact I loved it to pieces.
I’m having trouble talking about it without spoilers, but I really don’t want to spoil it at all. There’s an amazing thing at the beginning of the first Emma section which absolutely is not where I thought things were going, and I want everyone to share my experience of coming to that around a blind corner. This means there’s a great deal about the rest of the book that I can’t mention, because it’s a huge deal.
When I really like something I always feel that I’m not writing about it well enough, that I can’t properly convey what makes it so great. I want to jump up and down and wave my arms about and spray superlatives around and make a complete fool of myself. Rituals is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I hope to see it get the recognition it deserves and appear on a lot of award ballots next year.
Full disclosure, Roz is a friend and I got a free copy so I could blurb it if I liked it. I wouldn’t yet have come across it if I didn’t know Roz. But I have a pile of ARCs of things written by people I know that I didn’t like and will never say a word about, and the odds were that this would end up on that pile. That it didn’t isn’t because Roz is a friend but because it’s brilliant.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.