I love fiction books about witches. I’ve loved them since I was a fourth grader sneaking a re-read of Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch during math class, and I love them to this day. As a Wiccan, I really treasure the rare witchy books that do a halfway realistic job of depicting my chosen community. So when I heard through the Gardnerian grapevine this week that someone had gone and published a book–not only a book, the start of a whole series–that prominently featured Gardnerian Wicca, I was intrigued. And since I’m on vacation and can actually read a book that I’m not teaching for the first time in months, I decided to drop a whopping $2.99 on Taliesin Govannon’s first novel, In Perfect Love.
This book, the first of Govannon’s proposed Five Acres Coven series, picks up from his 2012 film Dark of Moon. While it is obvious that there is a rich back story to some very minor characters in this book, I was not at all lost in reading In Perfect Love, so the novel does stand on its own quite well. This novel focuses primarily on a minor character from Dark of Moon, Mordwyn. She’s a twenty-something first degree Gardnerian at the novel’s opening who has been blowing her coven–the New Forest Coven–away by how quickly she’s progressed through their first degree requirements. She leads a rather bohemian life, renting the basement apartment in a covenmate’s house and teaching Wicca 101 classes a few times a week at the Pagan store where she also works. She’s also very attractive and seems to take great joy in shooting down the advances of imperfect men while she waits for the right person to show up.
When that person does, she’s a woman, and Mordwyn doesn’t recognize at first that she is attracted to Amy (short for Amethyst), a petite and spunky redhead. Thanks to a couple of covenmates, she figures it out fairly quickly and the pair become happily committed within 24 hours and move in together within six weeks. I’m fairly sure they’re engaged within a year. Even the other characters in the book crack jokes about their warp speed U-Hauling.
Mordwyn and Amy have a charming relationship, and Wicca is at its foundation. Mordwyn quickly begins teaching her new girlfriend more and more about the Craft, and Amy eventually asks to join the coven’s outer court. But even though Amy proves herself to be even more studious and gifted than her girlfriend, she hits a snag when it comes to the one thing Gardnerians are famous for: skyclad practice. When sexual trauma is revealed to be at the root of the problem, the coven generously bends the Tradition to help Amy heal from her trauma and eventually become an initiate. Soon thereafter, Mordwyn and Amy join the newly hived Five Acres Coven, headed by the millennial daughter of the New Forest Coven’s leaders and a slightly older male initiate. By the novel’s close, they’ve initiated a fifth member and have another one or two in the outer court. Presumably, the rest of the series will follow this new coven full of witches from the social media generation.
I do have to say that I did enjoy the book. In my first read through I wasn’t exactly gripped by the plot or the characters–there’s practically zero conflict and both Mordwyn and Amy are Mary-Sue perfect–but I loved seeing traditional Wicca through fresh eyes and I really enjoyed how Govannon depicted coven dynamics. As he demonstrated, the people in a good, functional coven become a family in all the best ways. The huge strength of the book, I thought, was in its depictions of the relationships between the covenmates. At one point, I even thought that the book was reading a bit like Gerald Gardner’s novel High Magic’s Aid. Like Govannon’s novel, the plot is the least interesting thing about the book, but the depictions of circle craft, magical practice, and the relationships between practitioners are quite captivating and informative.
I was also appreciative of Govannon’s respect for the Gardnerian tradition and his care to not disclose too much of what we do. As an oathbound tradition, we’ve got lots of members that would be worked into a tizzy if they saw rituals that looked like their inner court rituals or language that looks like it could have been lifted from a line’s Book of Shadows. Govannon could not break Gardnerian oath even if he tried, for he is not a Gardnerian and is not bound by that oath. Nevertheless, he did do a great job of respecting its spirit. Any time the New Forest Coven held a initiates-only ritual, for example, the ritual was not depicted. All the rituals described were either personal rituals or outer court rituals, and while they had a traditional flair, they didn’t do anything that couldn’t be found in a decent published book.
I was, however, worried by statements throughout the novel that implied that Gardnerian craft is better than eclectic craft. These start out tame enough. For example, Govannon notes early in the first chapter that Mordwyn’s coven is “not only Wicca, it was Gardnerian, the oldest running modern Wiccan tradition” and that Mordwyn “loved being a part of a Tradition that served as the foundation of her religion”. Moreover, “having access to her line’s Book of Shadows was a huge plus” because it contained all “the collected spells and other writings of all her up-line Priests and Priestesses”. In this moment, Govannon hasn’t said anything that is untrue or even bad…but there is a slight impression left that Mordwyn was drawn to Gardnerian craft because it is more authentic than the alternatives. Not more than a few pages later, that implication becomes explicit with Amy calling her own previous practice “flaky”, saying “I spent every holiday alone with my [solitary Pagan] Mom, doing some cobbled together, improvised ritual. Somehow, sitting in my living room in front of my Mom’s altar eating some cookies and singing some cheesy Pagan chants didn’t exactly bring across […] The power and mystery of the Old Religion”. Elsewhere in the novel, a seeker approaches Mordwyn and Amy saying “it is so exciting to be meeting a couple of actual Gardnerian Witches! I mean, you guys are the real deal, not like the mall-rat Wiccans I meet online!”
I think that every Gardnerian I know would say that Gardnerian Wicca is the best tradition *for them*, not for everyone. It’s just one way of doing things. It does some things really well in ways that I and others personally appreciate, but it also does some things not-so-well. I know that I’ve been getting stronger in some forms of energy work by attending meditation and psychic development classes at the flakiest, fluffy-bunniest New Age emporium in Indianapolis than I have by working with my coven. And I’m finding I’m able to better connect with deity when using techniques I’ve picked up from Feri practitioners than those I’ve learned through Gardnerian teachers. Gardnerian craft is *a good* pathway, not *the best* pathway. And, to be honest, I would be exceptionally skeptical of any Pagan pathway that claimed to be *the best*.
I was also a little perplexed by just how degree and progression-focused the New Forest Coven was depicted as being. All the first degrees are diligently working their way through a long list of reading, tasks, and assignments to be able to get their second degrees, and presumably all the second degrees are doing the same. They keep tabs and comment upon each other’s progress. At one point, the High Priestess even says that “we always assume that people who dedicate eventually want to reach the third degree.” And the importance of progression in this coven leaves them vulnerable to using that desire to manipulate behavior. For example, one third-degree priestess mentions how they need to tell a first-degree priest that helping a covenmate move is a requirement for getting second in order for him to show up. That is all kinds of wrong on so many levels.
There definitely is an appearance that Gardnerian Wicca is all about the hierarchy, and it is true that many people who initiate ultimately do want to become second and third degrees–if only to be able to run a group someday in their later lives. But that’s not a requirement. An initiate can stay a first degree their entire lives, if they want. They are still a Priest or Priestess of the Craft. And I’ve met several firsts that have more talent and understanding than some thirds, so being a third-degree hardly means you’re the biggest, baddest witch in the land. And no matter what, progression is something that the initiate *asks* for, not something they are expected to do in order to be a good witch.
I was also really disturbed by the fact that no one in the book was shown as having any interests beyond Wicca and romantic relationships. Mordwyn, the main character here, literally has nothing in her life outside of these two things. She works in a Pagan shop. She has a tarot-reading side hustle. She met her girlfriend while teaching a Pagan class. She rents her apartment from a covenmate. Quite literally, unless she and Amy are getting it on, we do not see her doing a single thing that isn’t Pagan related. That’s just unhealthy. The reader is told that Amy has a nice job outside of Paganism (though it also endorses a Pagan club and gives everyone in the club all the Sabbats off with pay…oh, fiction), but everything else she does is Pagan related. Out of all the other coven members, the only things we really know about them is that the High Priest is a professor at the local college, some are married or in long-term relationships, others are single, and there are people of just about every sexual persuasion in the group. That’s about it. These people really need lives outside of Wicca. If only for them to have something to do magic for later on in the series.
I have several other issues with the book, particularly with the superficiality of Mordwyn and Amy’s relationship and Govannon’s problematic depictions of the LGBT community (Brigid outs Amy’s mother to Amy and no one calls her on it?! In what queer universe would that happen?), but that’s perhaps going beyond my Gardnerian focus.
Ultimately, the depictions of general British Traditional Witchcraft in this book are pleasantly compelling, even if the nuances around Gardnerian craft can miss the mark a bit. I can’t exactly say I enjoyed the plot or the flat characters in this book all that much, and I certainly found a lot to object to in their depiction, but I’d still probably read the next book in the series whenever it is published. I have a feeling it will get better as Govannon writes more…and if it doesn’t, it’s not like $3 will break the bank.
Here are some basic things that I wish this book had done:
- Sprung for a copy-editor. There were plenty of small, overlookable typos, but there were also some really confusing errors, like using the wrong character name or the wrong pronoun. (Especially confusing during the coming out scene!) In the last chunk of the novel, Amy’s mother’s name suddenly changed from Dani to Dina, too, which was super jarring. I totally understand that self-published work will have the occasional hiccup, but this edition had way too many.
- Sprung for a more professional cover. I hate to admit it, but even I judge a book by its cover at times, and this one is strongly reminiscent of the early days of Geocities free websites in its aesthetic. It is vital in self-publishing, particularly when starting a new series, to have attractive cover art. Without a lot of reviews, buyers will make assumptions based on what they see. In fact, many self-published authors usually give the first book away free on Kindle in order to help create a reading audience. Paying for a professional cover designer is an immediate financial loss in that case, but even if a writer doesn’t want to take that hit, there are plenty of free resources like Canva.com that idiot-proof the graphic design process…for free. I designed this one in all of five minutes, and I can’t design my way out of a paper bag.
- Been told from Amy’s point of view. I totally get that Mordwyn was the character Govannon created in his 2012 movie and that he wanted to focus on her…but the audience would have had so much more buy in if they were learning about Wicca and this new coven community at the same time the protagonist is. Many successful series have their book 1 told from an “outsider’s” perspective, and it’s usually a fantastic strategy.
- Not used Gardnerian craft. This pains me, for I *love* fictional books about Wicca and I specifically read this one because it talked about a Gardnerian coven. But not showing what the inner court was doing–while fine in this introductory novel–seems like it would be too difficult to sustain over the long term of the series. I think that if it were to be a stronger book with a stronger future, a fictional British Traditional Witchcraft tradition should have been created. (How cool would it be to have a Valientian Wicca?!)
- Had actual problems that took more than a few pages to “solve.” There really wasn’t a crisis moment or anything that held the novel together. It could have been a wildly interesting book about a priestess who thought she was straight in a tradition that highly valued gender binary discovering she was actually gay. There is so much room for self reflection and questioning and personal growth there…but it was literally unaddressed. Amy deciding to become a Gardnerian but needing to overcome skyclad issues could have been an awesome book two. There is so much internal struggle just in feeling comfortable in taking off your clothes in front of others, but to also come to terms with childhood sexual assault? These should have been huge story arcs. And frankly would have been an awesome place to show how Wiccan practice is all about getting out of the way of your own ego. But Amy was a model patient in a therapy that all took place during months that were not described and instead we just got super witches making out. Hardly the stuff of compelling literature.