Shaman’s Blood is somewhat difficult to get into. The opening chapters alternate between present-day and 1953, although since the dates are clearly given, that presents little difficulty. What are more problematical are the frequent hints of past events and adumbrations of future events within each chapter that are never quite clearly defined and that keep the individual chapters from flowing freely. Add to that the fact that the book intimates early on that all of the main characters are somehow related and have shared hideous, even monstrous—but undescribed—visions, and it requires an unusual amount of confidence in the author to continue.
Normally, when I come upon what seems a major bobble in a novel, I ask myself two questions: (1) Does the apparent problem stem from the author’s ignorance, and if so what do I need to say to suggest ways to overcome it; or (2) Does the apparent problem stem from my ignorance of the author’s purposes, and if so, how does the novel demonstrate that it is not, after all, a problem.
I like to give authors the benefit of the doubt. After all, it takes courage to write a novel and send it out into the wild unknowns of the reading public. And it takes work, dedication, and care even to write a novel—so I try to be as generous as possible when reviewing one.Now that I’ve completed Shaman’s Blood, the resolution seems fairly straightforward. The novel is a complex blend of the hallucinatory and the real, with visionary characters frequently intruding upon our world and interacting with real characters in frightening ways, and real characters likewise intruding upon the worlds of dreams and visions and interacting with visionary characters in equally frightening ways.
The landscape constantly shifts, from an almost mystical but vivid and terrifying Florida backwoods replete with magic and dangers; to the hallucinogenically kaleidoscopic streets of San Francisco at the height the age of the hippies; to coastal Florida, normal and sedate on the surface but concealing decades of black magic, of death, of curses that weave throughout time and eternity; to the outback of Australia with its heritage of spiritual walk-abouts and its immortal protectors, their images and their powers etched by aboriginal shamans onto the very stones of the desolate wastes.
And time blends fluidly, past to present, present to future, making it essentially impossible to tell the story in any other way and still maintain the sense that real and unreal, here and there, then and now are little more than convenient labels used in an unattainable attempt to understand the multiple possibilities of the cosmos.
At its core, Shaman’s Blood is a Quest novel. In a climactic moment, one of the characters exclaims, “The thing I drew…it’s a magical object, some kind of holy grail. In the trance, I saw how it got created for a tribe by one of their gods. Then something happened to it, stolen or something. But really, I’m just guessing. The snake spirit I channeled said I’m supposed to return it. But how can I return something I don’t even have?” (146).
Therein rest the challenges that have extended over six generations. What is the object? Where is the object? What are its powers? To whom does it belong? Where does it belong? Who must return it? What sacrifice of life—or sanity—will the attempt to return it require? How are all of the significant characters that have come into contact with it related? Why does the curse associated with it, including night- and day-time visions of horrendous creatures, follow one bloodline? And how can mere mortals even hope to contend with the evil, powerfully magical creatures of shadowlands?Petty does a good job weaving all of these questions—along with some of the answers—into the fabric of a novel. True, the flashbacks and flashforwards continue almost throughout the novel. And true, it is at times difficult to determine precisely what is happening, whether it is real or visionary.
But also true, Shaman’s Blood offers unique insights into the worlds of magic, especially Australian mythology. Tales told by tribal “senior men,” as well as tales too sacred to be told outright, combine with the modern world to create an engaging, intriguing, and ultimately enjoyable excursion into the intricacies of belief and unbelief.
As long as the reader remembers to trust the author and the structural decisions her subject has forced upon her.Recommended.