Book Review: Hand of Isis

June 5, 2009 by  
Filed under books, reviews

Hand of Isis
by Jo Graham
Orbit (March 23, 2009) $14.99
ISBN 978-0316068024
528 pages
Reviewer: Bronwen Forbes
Full starFull starFull starFull starFull star

When Graham’s first book, Black Ships, was released last year, the publicity materials claimed that the book did for the Aeneid (Virgil’s famous poem about Aeneas — mentioned in the Iliad — and his travels before settling in Italy and becoming the ancestor of the Romans) what The Mists of Avalon did for the Arthurian legend. As a huge Mists fan, I was skeptical, but I read and reviewed Black Ships with an open mind. And the publicity didn’t lie — the book was fantastic.

My question a few months ago was, could Graham’s second book, Hand of Isis, possibly be as good as her first, or would she be a one-hit wonder?

Hand of Isis is not as good as Black Ships. It’s better.

Graham has penned a detailed, gripping, readable account of the life of Cleopatra, told from the point of view of her half-sister and personal assistant, Charmian. All of the characters from the legend are brought to multi-dimensional life: Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony, Caesar Augustus. In a question-and-answer section in the back of the review book, Graham reveals that her primary inspiration for the most famous Queen of the Nile was the late Princess Diana, another ruler who loved and served her people as best she could before an early tragic death.

In addition to telling a well-crafted story, Hand of Isis explores the notions of fate, destiny, and the price demanded of those who choose to serve Deity. The story is told as a flashback; Charmian has shared her sister’s fate and died of a poisonous asp bite, and is in Amenti being judged by the Gods for her actions and inactions in life. Slowly, kindly, the Gods allow Charmian to realize for herself that she made the best decisions possible based upon the information she had at the time — and because she, Cleopatra and their other sister Iras had been sworn companions in previous lifetimes.

“Do you think this is the only time you have served Cleopatra, or the only time you have stood before these thrones?” Anubis smiled, a hound’s openmouthed smile. “Three times before you have walked into the dark places at Pharoah’s side as he came forth by day. And not three hundred years have passed since you took Companion’s oaths together, not three hundred years since you swore yourself to the service of Egypt and the House of Ptolemy. And in fulfillment of those oaths, you returned as a member of the same House, of the same blood, no less than your sisters.”

Take care, Hand of Isis tells us, what oaths you may swear in this life, because oaths have a way of binding us throughout time to the same people and the same duties. Through these oaths we make our own destinies and not even the Gods can change the inevitable. The book illustrates this beautifully; Isis clearly has a plan for Charmian’s life — she has the psychic abilities and spiritual yearnings to be a priestess at Isis’ temple in Bubastis — but Charmian chooses instead to honor past oaths, reforge the bonds she made in past lifetimes and stay with her sisters. And that choice changes the history of the world in such a profound way that we are still telling the story two thousand years later. It’s also a choice that Charmian honors after death. I won’t give away the ending, but her decision to return to her loved ones is the most courageous part of the whole sad tale.

I don’t often keep the advanced review copies I receive. One exception is Hand of Isis. It will hold a place of honor on my personal bookshelf for a long time.

Review ©2009 Bronwen Forbes
Edited by Sheta Kaey

Book Review: Make Merry in Step and Song

April 14, 2009 by  
Filed under books, music, reviews

Book Review: Make Merry in Step and Song

Make Merry in Step and Song: A Seasonal Treasury of Music, Mummer’s Plays and Celebrations in the English Folk Tradition

by Bronwen Forbes
Llewellyn Publications, 2009 $19.95
ISBN 978-0738715001
264 pages
Reviewer: Lupa
Full starFull starFull starFull starFull star

I’ve been in the pagan community for over a decade, and while I haven’t been a part of any formal group for any length of time, I have seen numerous examples of attempts at creative, unique group rituals. Some of these end up being rehashes of the usual Cunningham-mixed-with-something variety. If you’d like to avoid that fate, Make Merry in Step and Song is an excellent choice.

Not all Morris dancers are pagan, or even familiar with modern paganism. However, the traditional English dances are becoming more common at pagan events and rituals; incidentally, I was just at a festival this past weekend that featured one of Portland’s Morris dancing troupes. So this is a wonderfully timed text. Forbes does a lovely job of presenting well-researched information on historical Morris dancing and related practices, a tradition that her own family has been involved in for quite some time.

The book is divided up into the four seasons, along with some other miscellany that didn’t fit into any of those. I was surprised that there wasn’t an introductory chapter on the basics of Morris dancing/etc., its history and context, and so forth. Instead, the history is neatly woven into each of the sections as Forbes describes the relevant dance and celebration. This isn’t just a theoretical text, though. She goes into great detail describing the ritual format, the play scripts, the songs, and the dances themselves.

I’m sure most of my readers are familiar with the Spiral Dance, the back-and-forth-winding bane of the uncoordinated (individually and collectively). While the dances that Forbes describes do take some choreography and rehearsal is recommended, she does about as good a job of illustrating them on paper as one can hope to do, so no complaints there (though if you truly are clumsy, you may want to take the suggestion of using something other than blades for the sword dances). Also, because the rituals are largely dependent on dancing, one’s physical ability may prevent them from fully participating in that regard. However, the songs and other non-dancing portions of the rituals are well-fleshed-out, so adaptations may be made as necessary. And you will need a group to perform these rituals, not surprisingly; this is not a working text for the solitary practitioner (unless you have some friends!).

I think my only complaint (and it’s a small one) is a wish for footnotes or endnotes. Forbes does offer a select bibliography, but no real indication as to which books provided which information in her own writing. This doesn’t adversely affect the functionality of the book, but it does make it frustrating if you want to do more research on Morris dancing and related topics and aren’t quite sure where the best starting point is. (She does offer an appendix with information on where to find further resources, however.)

Overall, though, I really, really loved this book. It’s nice to see a practical text that doesn’t fall back on tired formulae (there are no spells or correspondences awkwardly shoehorned in) and that shows good research as a general rule. And it’s even better to see a topic that isn’t commonly covered, rather than the usual rehashes. I would most definitely recommend this to any neo-pagan group that works with English folk practices, those who want to try new styles of participatory ritual, and folks who are curious about the application of old traditions to the 21st century.

Five pawprints out of five.

Review content ©2009 Lupa
Edited by Sheta Kaey

Lupa is the author of Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone: A Primal Guide to Animal Magic, A Field Guide to Otherkin, and co-author of Kink Magic, among other works. You can read her blog at and see her website at

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