Fans of neo-pagan fiction will love this book! Barbara Ardinger weaves together the secret lives, loves, personal histories, and ancestral legacies of a coven of witches who live in Long Beach, California. The events of the book take place over a year and a half period from 1989 to 1990.

The author presents a massive spectrum of themes and issues that impact a coven whose members include a Rainbow Coalition of ages, colors, professions, backgrounds, and sexual preferences. The storyline threads are spun as social and community issues are juxtaposed with personal and spiritual concerns. Chapters resemble sequential episodes in a top-notch television series like “Babylon V.”  Small interpersonal storylines act as a counterpoint to overarching group storylines and themes. The challenges faced by the elderly are central to the book’s overall plot, but are by no means exclusive.

Plot challenges provide an opportunity for the author to dig deeply into the joys and pitfalls of embracing a pagan lifestyle. Some issues will be very familiar to readers who have been coven members, but unfortunately, few of these problems are ever seriously scrutinized in neo-pagan literature. Characters blend and clash through individual crises and group story peaks. Coven members give each other advice, wisdom, and pagan-appropriate ways to cope with their problems and milestones. Every reader will discover characters in the book that have problems or feelings they can identify with, and characters who speak for them by voicing similar feelings or opinions.

This book belongs to the magical realism genre, but put the emphasis on “real.” Even though the coven’s spells have fantasy-level results, the social problems, age-related issues, and individual turning points are legitimate reality checks found in daily life. And although the book includes a reincarnated, talking familiar cat, a sexy Green Man, and a titanic battle with the Norns, the action occurs in a real place in the fairly recent past. And the coven members aren’t all-knowing savants working in perfect harmony! They don’t always agree with each other. They don’t always choose the best solutions on the first try. Even the oldest matriarch, Emma Clare, age 97, isn’t always wise. She resists change, discourages guests, and insists on total secrecy because of inculcated fears. The foibles and flaws give verisimilitude to the characters.

While comparable to the fictional works of Dion Fortune and Starhawk because of the inclusion of rituals (that can be borrowed or adapted) and fantasy magic, Secret Lives embraces a level of visceral reality that I’ve never seen in another pagan-themed book. Wrestling with such a wide variety of issues on so many levels is too complex and daunting a task for most authors. Ardinger weaves her layered storylines with consummate grace, wisdom, and humor. Considering the breadth of topics, it’s amazing how the author manages to include so much meaty substance with a minimum of unnecessary filler. This is a high magical-protein—low muggle carb book.

Thumbs up and hearty cheers for the author, who tackled the difficult process of self-publishing this book. The final product is quite fine, with the cover and chapter headings beautifully typeset with an elegant Arts and Crafts font. The cover is a cut above most fictional books since it actually relates to the book’s content.

The author gives readers some special bonuses: At the beginning of the book, there’s a “Who’s Who” outline of all the book’s characters for easy reference. There’s also a free Reader’s Guide that includes chapter-by-chapter notes about the historic, literary, film, and musical theater references, and issue-centered questions to consider about every chapter. (http://www.barbaraardinger.com/secret-lives)

When I got “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” I took the phone off the hook, hunkered down and guzzled it like a literary beer bong. This isn’t that kind of book. With its myriad of complex characters and issues, the reader should go gently, taking time to absorb, reflect and ponder. Ardinger offers a treasure trove of wisdom for pagans of every age. The book prompts a lot of thought about what it means to be a neo-pagan in contemporary society.

Highly recommended to readers of all ages and all paths! Kudos to the author and her production team!

~review by Elizabeth Hazel

Author: Barbara Ardinger
Barbara Ardinger, 2011
pp. 634 pages, $25.00

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