Rituals by Roz Kaveney
Reviewed by Sarah Frost
12 September 2012
Rituals is a fantasy in two parts. One part is an epic tale from the beginning of history. The other part is an urban fantasy that meanders from humor to surreal horror. As the first volume of the Rhapsody of Blood, Roz Kaveney's novel takes the reader into a world that might look like ours if you squint, but in which elves ride the subway and new gods can arise among the more literally bloodthirsty bourgeoisie.
The heroine of the epic is Mara the Huntress, an immortal warrior who refuses the title of goddess. Her mission is to hunt down anyone who has figured out the quick and dirty path to immortality. Kaveney risks a lot by making Mara into an unstoppable killing machine. Characters with godlike power are often boring protagonists. However, the evils that Mara faces cannot be beaten by the precise application of a spear. She outlines the limits of a god's power with her failures.
Mara's story begins in what I took to be Greece or Asia Minor. Throughout the book, her perspective is limited by geography, to both good and bad effect. She cannot, for example, know what is happening on the steps of Aztec pyramids until someone tells her that the Americas exist. Once she does find out, she sets about slaughtering the gods of the Aztecs. She takes pains to explain that there are no maiden-eating fertility gods in Europe because she has already killed them all, but the scene still made me uncomfortable, paired as it was with Cortez's sack of Tenochtitlan.
Mara meets a lot of famous people on her travels, crossing paths with everyone from Noah to Dagon. This sort of storytelling usually gets on my nerves, but Kaveney made me take interest in her peculiar retelling of Biblical and Greek mythology. Part of this is her skill with words. She is a poet, and I adore books in which I can turn a page and find that "the small domes of dew on each leaf shone like stars, and beams from the sun broken up by the leaves above him became almost palpable, an aura of light and soft green shadow" (p. 168).
The other aspect of Kaveney's writing that got me hooked was her commitment to horror. Mara's story is driven by a constant drumbeat of tragedy and human weakness. I found that I couldn't look away as Mara honed herself to nothing but a hand guiding a spear. Mara's flashes of humanity, as with her first interlocutor (whose identity I hope will play a part in later books) and with Emma, the protagonist of the novel's second storyline, are all the more compelling in light of her blood-soaked history. Also, when Kaveney turns her poet's mind to monsters, the result is gruesome; I cannot remember the last time I saw such an original Lovecraftian nightmare brought to life on the page.
The other half of Rituals is an urban fantasy of a strange and breathless sort. The heroine of this story is Emma Jones, whom I grew to adore. She is not a god. She has no magical powers beyond what little she has been able to teach herself. She has no warrior training. What she does have is her empathy, her research skills, and raw intelligence. For instance, when asked how she knew so much about elves before she even knew that they existed, she explains, "I've read the obvious books and I have a vivid imagination" (p. 82).
When we first meet Emma, she's a college student who is trying to figure out why one of the pretty upper-class girls is paying attention to her. Here is where I cannot praise Kaveney enough: She understands that a love story does not have to be unrequited in order to be tragic and beautiful. (It's also nice to see a writer subverting the dead lesbian trope.) Emma and Caroline are adorable together, to whatever degree they can be together. They have the sensitivity and shared humor that I think a long-term relationship needs.
"The job is always about sacrifice," Emma told her sweetly. "Sometimes it's mine and sometimes it's yours."
"Oh but gods," Caroline wailed. "Bloody string quartets." (p. 102)
Emma's story shows off the other thing that delighted me about Rituals: its sense of humor. Caroline is a cut-up and Emma is her devoted straight man (so to speak). On their first adventure, they meet a faun who complains that "Wherever I go, camel-buggering Romans follow me. . . . That, and women more interested in each other than in me" (p. 24). I think I got to the bit about "stick it up the Emperor's arse with a radish" before I started to laugh aloud—not just because I have a deep appreciation of creative vulgarities, but also because the references to radishes and (later on) entrails are so appropriate for an irate character from Greek myth.
There is plenty of tragedy in Emma's story, too. The monsters that she faces are smaller than Mara's primeval horrors, but no less creepy. I think the bit with the giant baby is going to be seared into my mind for a long time. Rituals doesn't pretend that flesh-eating gods can stalk the streets of England without killing the occasional noncombatant. Emma's definition of failure counts the number of lives lost rather than how many monsters she has slain. She attends a lot of funerals, and stands at the back so she won't bother the grieving families.
Near the end, as she begins to move into Mara's world, I had a sinking feeling that Emma simply could not match the kind of power she was about to face. Fortunately, Emma does not rely on pure force to get what she wants. The end is strange. Emma sinks into Mara's mythology, bringing some aspects of her modern world with her. Many of the book's plotlines are wrapped up in a way that is almost but not entirely satisfying. I expect to follow the rest of the plot threads into the next volume in the Rhapsody of Blood series, which I will be picking up. I can't wait to see what Kaveney does next. Rituals is a fine fantasy novel: dark, twisted, and a lot of fun.