Lani Sarem’s scandalous novel came to me from a voice in the darkness. I was at a Renfaire, and the author had an unlighted booth. As I walked by, she called, “Do you like to read?” I ended up taking home a free review copy.
The scandal surrounding this book is about the New York Times Bestseller List and a parade of minor celebrities. Handbook for Mortals landed a bestseller spot largely via bulk purchases, apparently by the author. Bulk purchasing by an author is legitimate if the books are being sold at large events like Renaissance Faires, but usually the author would buy directly from the publisher. In this case the author apparently bought from retail bookstores that report sales to the NYT.
The author is an actress and band manager, hence the buy-in by celebs and the proud promise on the dust jacket that this book and its sequels will be made into movies. In a published interview, Sarem admitted that most of her convention sales were due to selling the book at a TV actor’s booth along with autographs by the actor, and that the author did not expect that buyers would actually read it.
As it turns out, I didn’t finish reading it either. I usually try to completely read through every book I intend to review, even ones I hate, but I just couldn’t make it through this dreck. If this book had landed in my inbox when I was still acquisitions editor at Eternal Press, I would have rejected it. It suffers badly from First Draft Syndrome, which is what I call it when the first few chapters need to be chopped off so the story can start with action. The author claims to have had it edited, but evidently she only engaged a copyeditor to fix typos, not a developmental editor to fix the story.
The concept for the plot sounds like a fun idea for an urban fantasy. A woman uses real magic to pretend to do impressive stage magic illusions in a show in Las Vegas. Since I live in the Vegas area, and I know several stage magicians who are active in the local pagan community, that sounded like a really cool idea for a book. The parts of the book that were actually good were descriptions of this stage magic. But that’s not enough to carry a novel.
Handbook for Mortals starts with a prologue, which is a barrel of self-absorbed vaguebooking. Two pages in, the cliché-ridden mess switches to second person. Three pages in, it appears the story might actually be starting, when the author gets around to describing something. Unfortunately, it’s the weather, another over-done trope. Not precisely “It was a dark and stormy night,” but the same general thing. But then the story still doesn’t start.
I skipped to the beginning of the first chapter. There’s a stage magic illusion in this chapter, and that part was actually pretty good, aside from the stretching of credulity of having the pro magicians fall all over her to offer her a place in their show and all the cute men fawn over her. The stage magic part is on page thirty, which is way too far into a book for the first interesting part to occur.
This is the first time I’ve ever sent in a review to the magazine about a book I didn’t finish reading, but I was encouraged to review it anyway, for two reasons. When I asked my Facebook friends whether I should still try to review this book, they told me that readers would want to know why I couldn’t finish it, and that the rant I went on about the use of the g-slur in nonfiction parts of the book is socially useful information.
In the author biography section on the dust jacket, the author claims, “at the age of 15, I became a rock-and-rolly gypsy.” ROADIE. The word for her first job is roadie. “Gypsy” is an ethnic slur for the Romani people. The introduction to the book, written by a romance writer who is most famous for running a Twilight fan blog, also uses the word “gypsy” with a lower case g to describe travel for work.
The introduction also tells readers that despite the author’s use of pagan references in her book, including opening with a quote about witches and having a three moon phase symbol on the hardcover beneath the dust jacket, the author is not actually pagan. A professional publishing company would have gotten rid of the intro and prologue entirely, and would have rewritten the author bio to remove anything that could potentially offend a reader. A professional publishing company would not have published this at all. In this case, GeekNation Press, which does not normally publish novels. I understand that this book was originally written as a script, which may have been better than its novelization. A script must have action, dialogue, settings, props, and in the case of a script featuring stage magic and real life magic, lots of special effects — and usually, no internal dialogue. If there is any internal dialogue, any voice-over of the main character’s thoughts, it would usually be a very brief reflection, not a breathless insertion of five lines of teen angst in between each line of action or dialogue. It appears the publication deal may have been offered on the basis of the script and on the author’s in-person salesmanship, but GeekNation was still out of its depth taking on a project outside of their specialty.
Don’t waste your money on this book. If you absolutely must give it a try to see what all the fuss is about, or because you can’t live without reading everything available about witches doing stage magic, I’m sure there will be copies dumped at the library once some buyers try to actually read it. In other words, read it for free.
[Erin Lale is the author of Asatru For Beginners and other books. She has been a gythia since 1989, published Berserkrgangr Magazine, is a godspouse of Odin and his brothers, and currently manages the Asatru Facebook Forum and writes the Pagansquare blog Gnosis Diary: Life as a Heathen. She lives with her mom and her black cat in Henderson, Nevada, where she ran for public office in 2010 and 2013, and is active in her local dance, arts, and pagan communities.]