by Sarah Avery
(Dark Quest, Dec. 2013, 360 pp.)
Reviewed by Martha Burns
Tales from Rugosa Coven is a collection of three previously published novellas, each of which has to do with members of a neopagan, New Jersey coven. The plots of each of the novellas are clever and moving and although the first and third of the novellas are not entirely successful, the middle story is worth the price of admission.
Bob is arguably the patriarch of the coven and he faces a difficulty in “Closing Arguments” that is all too common for adult children, which is that following his parents’ deaths, he has to confront who they really were. On the surface, his parents were wealthy art collectors who happened to be pagans. What Bob finds when he goes to clear out the family home after his parents die of simultaneous heart attacks in Walmart (an entirely rational response, in my opinion) is that these once elegant and refined people have become hoarders. Their stately Victorian home is piled with enough paper towels to withstand the apocalypse and more television remotes than Bob knows what to do with. Bob’s bewilderment at what has happened to his parents is engaging and Bob’s desire to solve the mystery of how they came to this point is something we want to solve as well. What the novella principally suffers from is not being either longer or shorter. The narrative should be centered on Bob, yet Avery takes great pains to introduce each of the coven members, their families, as well as his parents’ former friends. Only some of this has to do with Bob’s struggles, which makes for a distracting read. Yet another aim is to introduce readers to the particulars of paganism or rather, it seems, a version of paganism where there are more denominations than there are denominations of Protestants. This is simply too much, especially when central characters have similar names (Sophie and Susan and Ricki and Ria). The personal struggles of some of the coven get more than a walk-on, such as one member’s relationship with her abusive, Thor-worshipping husband. Not only is this too much, the result of these decisions do not forward Avery’s aims. In particular, the religion of the coven members and, in general, of the wider pagan community, does not come off well in this first novella. The popular and unkind stereotype is that neopaganism is a mishmash of beliefs. Well, Bob’s parents are neopagans, yet their hoarding is a byproduct of their servitude to a megalomaniac Egyptian deity, and Bob has a side practice in yoga, which is part of a larger Hindu practice. In short, the central story, while intriguing and well told, is nearly drowned in the rest of it.
“And Ria’s from Virgo” is fun, insightful, and plays against tropes that are not often played against. Ria is the most New Agey practitioner of the coven, complete with a car laden with amulets and a job in a shop named “Transcendence Perfection Bliss of the Beyond.” She believes in past lives, auras, and tarot cards, and she also suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. She’s been plagued by hand washing rituals and intrusive thoughts since childhood and is in search of a therapist who will take her seriously despite her paganism. Ria is a wonderful character whose attitude toward her disorder is refreshing and unexpected. She knows she has a problem and is willing to, and does, benefit hugely from medication. One of the most tiring tropes in contemporary fiction is that no one ever needs mental health care and, indeed, it’s something from which people are only liberated by going off of their meds. That Ria is honest with herself about the condition and what she should do about it makes her struggles all the more meaningful. In addition, that Ria is actually right about her hodgepodge of beliefs is not only entertaining, but heartwarming. We are so thoroughly on Ria’s side that we want her to be right. Avery also plays fair regarding Ria’s place in the coven. Ria’s coven doesn’t see her disorder and key members have little empathy for her behavior, the end result of which is that she leaves the coven just before she will be kicked out. This plays against the trope of the all-supporting religious community. The coven is made up of kind people, by and large, though with one glaring exception to be addressed in the next novella. The coven simply doesn’t understand or have room for Ria’s messy beliefs and so, to get better, she has to go. One wishes this novella began the collection. It is the longest of them and so characters are introduced at a relaxed pace and side narratives are not distracting. Ria is the clear focus and everything else that happens deepens and expands our understanding of her. Highly recommended.
The final novella, “Atlantis Cranks Need Not Apply,” has two main story lines. The first concerns Bob’s dippy and adorable sister, Sophie, and the second concerns Jane, whose central presence in the story both mars the larger collection and gets in the way of Sophie’s tale. Sophie find a merman, has riotous sex with him (which will surprise no one who has read the series or, for that matter, the rest of the coven) and then things get even stranger. This is played straight and it is fun to read, in part because Sophie herself is so fun. Jane is not. Jane has been Ria’s antagonist in the coven and congratulates herself on running Ria out of the group. Because Ria has been given such extensive treatment in the longest novella and readers have been given the space to get to know her and empathize with her, Jane comes off as a bully. When we get into Jane’s head, we see that every interaction with Ria is one in which she weighs who’s right and who is wrong. Jane tells Sophie to fuck off and Sophie takes it as the piece of banter it’s meant to be, while Ria, who never says anything nearly so harsh, is castigated. The funny thing is that Ria is the only member of the coven who repays Jane’s prickliness appropriately and does not excuse her bad behavior because Jane is struggling to leave that abusive, Thor-worshipping husband. Certainly, it’s a delicate balance to introduce a character who is not sympathetic and then make her so, yet Avery misidentifies who is inherently sympathetic and who is not. I suspect that matters may have gone differently if Jane’s story about her abusive, Thor-worshipping husband, was taken out of Bob’s story and integrated it into a story that focused on Jane. With a complete narrative focused on Jane, her bullying behavior would have been more than acting out. In addition, making the coven side with Jane and against Ria is a baffling decision. It’s true that Jane has that abusive husband, but are we truly to believe that the coven will tolerate her behavior while not tolerating Ria’s? It seems so. The final scene between Ria and Jane in this novella isn’t helpful as Jane still comes off as thoroughly awful. More to the point, Jane’s narrative ought not to overshadow Sophie’s, which is truly the star of this third novella. Sophie deserved more.