With his first novel The Book of Shadows, South Florida writer James Reese has created the sort of plot I like most: supernatural beings and erotic sex play combined with writing so lush and affecting that I don't have to trade in my book snob membership to enjoy it.
Set in 18th century France, the book revolves around Herculine, the main character who watches her mother mysteriously bleed to death and is orphaned on the first page. Before her mother spills her final drop of blood she tells her young daughter to run to a nearby convent where the nuns will take her in.
The next section of the book takes on a Cinderella quality, with Herculine working and living in a basement while the well-off young residents of the convent lounge in the upper quarters. Herculine manages to thrive by her own wits and the kindness of one nun who's not as cruel as the rest. This is sheer formulaic drivel, but Reese uses the setting to deliver stinging commentary on power politics in the Catholic Church and the capacity that organized religion has to breed evil.
When an innocent prank turns ugly, a religious fever spreads through the convent like a virus, and Herculine's fellow students turn on her. Their hysteria is spurred by an evil nun who sees her path to power in accusing Herculine of being a witch. As silly as it sounds, that's what actually happened in the 17th century, when women were burned for being accused of witchcraft.
But this is fiction, so of course Herculine actually is a witch.
She's rescued by a fellow witch, two ghosts and a demon who need her help. While she undertakes this mission, there are detailed passages that deal with more educational topics like the French Revolution and the French's passion for beheading their leaders.
It's that juxtaposition between garbage and literature that makes The Book of Shadows interesting. The novel was meticulously researched and gives an accurate account of 17th century France's political climate and undeveloped landscape. For all its rapturous sex and history lessons, the book drags on like a good movie that lasts for three hours when it really could have wrapped things up in two. But like that sprawling flick, you'll stick it out until the end because fiction this good deserves the dedication.