The Tortuous Serpent cont.

[Ed. Note: Here is Part Two of Brad’s guest review. Read Part One here. Two Dudes would like to thank Brad for stepping up to the plate while we were enjoying a ill-gotten summer vacation.]

 Tyson takes this historical event as his point of departure. In the novel, an infernal organization known as Sons of Coronzon and loyal to the Demon-Queen Lilith, has engineered the theft of a grimoire (a book of ritual black magic) of immense power from Dee’s library at Mortlake, covering up the theft by destroying the library itself. This adventure will take Dee, his scryer Kelley, and their wives (Jane Dee and Johanna Kelley) into Central Europe as they attempt to recover the grimoire and at the same time thwart the Sons of Coronzon’s conspiracy to wage magical war against England. The consequences of such a war would be devastating; as Protestant England was at the time confronting Catholic Spain — a nation then at the zenith of its military prowess. In any war, most expected England to lose badly.

Dee’s only allies in his quest to recover the grimoire are his three companions and a mysterious Jewish rabbi in Prague, who is also a practicing magician and a student of the Kabbalah, a body of esoteric and mystical Jewish doctrine and ritual. The rabbi and his daughter will play an important role before the story ends. Against Dee are arrayed formidable forces: Not only must he confront the Sons of Coronzon and their demonic hosts, led by Lilith the Demon-Queen herself; he must also avoid the clutches of an Inquisition eager to find him. Dee and Kelley are notorious as practicing magicians, trafficking with spirits. Now they are outside of England, away from the Queen’s protection, and in hostile territory indeed. The Inquisition intends to stamp out ritual magic in the most violent and painful ways possible; should Inquisitors get their hands on the good Dr. Dee, he faces the rather unattractive prospect of an exquisitely slow and agonizing death. Ouch!

Tyson is a good writer–only occasionally does his prose get a little too purple. His intimate knowledge of occult arcana stands him in good stead; he creates a credible scenario–credible to those who understand that ritual magic, whether it “actually works” or not, has nonetheless exercised a hold on human minds for millenia. Ritual magic is a phenomenon with its own set of practitioners and adherents, its own vocabulary and jargon, its intensely complex and arcane rituals, and its own set of unpleasant consequences for those who trifle with it.

There’s no sense in giving away more the plot here. Anyone interested enough to have read this far will be interested in the book. Likewise the interested reader will appreciate the deft manner in which Tyson has melded fact with fantasy, using his own deep knowledge of Renaissance high magic to make his story even more credible and interesting.

I first read this book 15 years ago. But I wanted to read it again, so I tracked down a copy on Amazon’s website and purchased it. It’s out of print but there are lots of copies available, and the price is right! Anyone who enjoys reading about the occult — not wizards with pointy hats throwing massive fireballs at each other or turning hapless citizens into newts — but men of iron will and strong courage conjuring up infernal entities from the netherworld, twisting these demonic powers to accomplish their own dastardly ends; who finds interesting the labyrinthine politics of 16th century Europe — the diplomatic dance between Protestant England and her much more powerful Catholic nemesis Spain, with the Holy Roman Empire looking on, not wanting Spain to get too big for its britches, but determined to return the true Catholic faith to English soil; and who enjoys a good yarn with damsels in distress and heroes who save the day, should give this book a shot. I think the brave reader will find it most enjoyable. The flaws are there, but they are few enough, and spread far enough apart, that they don’t detract from an interesting novel.

For those interested in the musical inspiration for this review, I listened to the amazing French black metal band, Blut Aus Nord, and their most recent offering, 777 Sect(S). Like John Dee’s ritual magic, calling up malevolent spirits of the netherworld, Blut Aus Nord is not for the faint of heart. It is rewarding if listened to in the privacy of one’s own home, accompanied by trained professionals.

Rating: The day the U.S. National team beat Spain in the Gold Cup, 2-0. I remember it well; I watched in Pep’s and Jose’s inestimable company, and the three of us exulted together. But the match required me to suspend my belief for awhile; I believed the U.S. side was pretty mediocre. That turned out to be true, but suspension was highly pleasurable, albeit very brief. If one can suspend any disbelief about the efficacy of ritual magic and simply enjoy some of the lush word pictures that Tyson paints, it should be fun. But when putting the book down, the reader will have to remind himself that he isn’t going to be able to send demonic sadists to torment a obnoxious boss, even if the thought felt so good.

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