A Myth-Making Masterpiece: Rituals by Roz Kaveney

Posted 1st April 2023 by Sia in Crescent Classics, Fantasy Reviews, Queer Lit, Reviews / 0 Comments

Rituals (Rhapsody of Blood #1) by Roz Kaveney
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Brown sapphic MC, white sapphic MC, white sapphic love interest, secondary character in a wheelchair, F/F, secondary M/M
PoV: 1st-person past-tense; 3rd-person past tense; dual PoVs

Two women - and the workings of Time and Fate.

In a time too long ago for most human memory, a god asked Mara what she most wanted. She got her wish: to protect the weak against the strong. For millennia, she has avenged that god, and her dead sisters, against anyone who uses the Rituals of Blood to become a god through mass murder. And there are few who can stand against her.

A sudden shocking incident proves to Emma that the modern world is not what she thought it was, that there are demons and gods and elves and vampires. Her weapon is knowledge, and she pursues it wherever it leads her. The one thing she does not know is who she - and her ghostly lover, Caroline - are working for.

Rhapsody of Blood is a four-part epic fantasy not quite like anything you've read before: a helter-skelter ride through history and legend, from Tenochitlan to Los Angeles, from Atlantis to London. It is a story of death, love and the end of worlds - and of dangerous, witty women.


~God and the Devil are exes
~ghosts make wonderful girlfriends
~all the stories are true, just not the way you think
~Do Not Anger The Luggage
~chaos magician drag-queens

First thing: ignore the cover. It’s awful, I know, but I swear to you that don’t judge a book by its cover has never been so vital as it is here.

Because this is a peerless masterpiece that deserves, not five stars, but every single star in the sky.

Rituals is two stories entwined: that of Mara and Emma. Mara is a hunter of gods from before the dawn of time; Emma is a perfectly normal student in the 80s, who ends up with a ghost for a girlfriend and a mysterious employer who wants her to deal with supernatural shenanigans. At first glance, their respective parts of the book are extremely separate – Mara is telling a select bit of her (extremely ancient) history to the occultist Crowley in order to dissuade him from trying to become a god, and Emma is mediating between angels, asshole elves, and chaos-magician drag queens in London and LA. But it all feels incredibly cohesive, especially as the ancient history experienced by Mara becomes extremely relevant to the present Emma is living in. And although the two halves of the book are pretty different, they’re both excellent, and I wouldn’t be willing to give up either one just to make Rituals easier to explain and understand!

This is a book that very much defies any attempt to easily label it; Emma’s parts are not conventional Urban Fantasy despite their setting, and Mara’s are thematically closer to High Fantasy, but not in any way you’ve seen before. Described like that, it’s a mix that doesn’t seem like it should work; Emma’s very middle-class English approach to monster doll houses, Tories, and Hollywood executives is not something you would think to pair with the fall of the Aztec Empire, the birth of the phoenix, and God and Lucifer’s origin story! And yet it all goes together magnificently, just as Emma’s superpower of Talking Sensibly contrasts beautifully with Mara’s very deadly seriousness (and complete lack of macho bullshit). The result is that, whichever half of the book initially appeals to you, you very much end up also drawn into the one you expected not to care for as much, and the lessons and messages of the one inform our understanding of the other.

Plot-wise, it goes a little like this: we’re introduced first to Mara, and learn something of her mission and the way she operates in a bit that acts almost as a prologue, and introduces the framing device of her story – that is, the fact that she’s telling it herself, in first-person, to Crowley.

But Rituals starts properly with Emma, whose parts of the book are divided by very effective time-skips (and I say this as someone who usually despises time-skips). We meet her first in 1985, at uni, where she encounters the supernatural for the first time and is summarily ‘hired’ by an anonymous sponsor who conveys her tasks to her via dropping them into the mind of her ghost girlfriend. But there is no training montage that turns Emma into a katana-wielding urban warrior; instead, it rapidly becomes clear that her superpower is, as previously mentioned, Talking Sensibly to very unsensible magical beings and creatures. She’s exactly the kind of heroine you would expect a perfectly normal, middle-class English student of the time to be; lacking in dramatic magical powers, respectful of those who deserve it, but taking absolutely no nonsense from those who don’t. Her approach to the Upper Classes of British society, in particular, is just *chef’s kiss*

Or was it a mistake to think of people of that class as even sentient in a standard sense? Sometimes it helped Emma cope to assume that they did not, in fact, think; that they were zombie pawns moved by history and economic power. The fact that she found this idea comforting was worrying.

After an encounter with a god of Ancient Egypt, we next see her in the 90s dealing with a murderous art exhibition and acting as a witness for a great dynastic marriage joining elf and vampire clans (neither of whom come out looking sexy and glamourous after Kaveney is done with them!) Still in the 90s but a few years later, she babysits a composer out to perform an opera which has been foretold to bring about the end of the world, meeting with the echo of Marilyn Monroe, clashing with someone who might be the real Ultimate Evil, and being cheeky to God in the process. (Honestly, he deserved much worse.)

Most of us have to find ways of doing magic; you, Emma Jones, can undo it as if it were a recalcitrant knot on an old shoe.”

It’s kind of impossible not to love Emma – to say nothing of Caroline, her ghostly paramour, who takes great delight in using her discorporate state to fashion herself an outfit appropriate to every moment. Her posh snark gives her some of the best lines in the book!

One of the privileges of age and power is that I do not have to listen to other people’s monologues.”

“Because they interrupt your own?”

In-between Emma’s escapades are Mara’s – or rather, some of them; it very rapidly becomes obvious that she has been alive for a very long time indeed, and a full accounting of her adventures would have a higher pagecount than the Wheel of Time. Our first glimpse of Mara in action comes as she describes the fall of the Aztecs, and her role in the…’clean up’ is probably not quite the right word, but I’m not sure what else to call it; later, we get a bit of her origin story, learn about her once-apprentices and some of the great enemies she’s faced. It’s a tiny taste of the adventures and trials she went through before the beginning of recorded human history, in contrast to seeing her interact with the ghost of Emperor Montezuma and the infamous Cortes in 1521. Both are epic, but the ‘before the dawn of time’ parts…it’s very easy to see how they would have turned into legend, is all I’m saying.

And Mara herself? Rocks. Her purpose is to prevent those who would become gods from doing so using the Rituals of Blood – which basically means human sacrifice on a massive, horrifically sadistic scale – or executing those gods who draw their power from that kind of horror. And she is very, very good at her job. But she doesn’t really fit the usual template for this kind of character; in her own narration, she comes across as cool and a little distant, and her pride is not the kind that demands she always be acknowledged as the biggest badass in the room. (This is, for the record, my favourite kind of badass; the one who is very happy to be underestimated, and simultaneously very sure and confident in their own power and ability.) It slants the shape of the story we’re used to, immediately makes it something new and interesting.

(And yet, Mara is clearly not as distant and unemotional as she seems, or why would she have dedicated herself such a thankless, endless task as that of protecting the weak from the strong? The history she relates belies the way in which she relates it, undermining the idea that she is untouchable and unhuman. She tells the story as if her part in it is almost of no matter, but clearly it matters more than anything else possibly could.)

Rituals is a pure delight for those with a special interest in mythology and the occult, but who are willing not to take those things too seriously. Packed full of references and sneaky nods to all kinds of legends, providing ‘origin stories’ for even more – like the Amazon warrior-women, Noah’s Ark, and the fall of Atlantis – this is a book swift to lambaste the more pretentious aspects of the genre (like the tongue-in-cheek depiction of elves and vampires), and one that absolutely considers religious figures as fair game. God, aka Jehovah, is treated as just another character in a dazzling cast – and neither Mara, Emma, nor yours truly are particularly impressed with him.

(For those concerned, Kaveney never comes close to suggesting that human faith and religion are something to mock or be contemptuous of; it’s only Jehovah himself that, in the context of the divine eco-system Kaveney’s designed for this series, is more than kind of a dick. A distinction that appealed to this particular raised-religious queer reader, and will probably be greatly enjoyed by others.)

Have I made it clear yet that this really isn’t like anything else you’ve ever read? I could talk about Rituals for weeks, but nothing I say is going to do it justice; reading about it cannot possibly prepare you for the experience of reading it yourself.

And you absolutely ought to read it. Because it is, to be frank, fucking magnificent. Rituals is clever, funny, sly, wry, poignant, brutal, bold, and wondrous all at once; the sheer breadth and brilliance of Kaveney’s imagination is matched only by her razor-sharp prose, which is sharp enough to cut even as it gleams. This is my fourth time reading Rituals, and the first time I’ve come anywhere close to putting my love for it into words – but I’ve only come close, not accomplished it. There is no way to praise this book (and the rest of the series!) enough; there is no way to overstate or exaggerate how convention-shatteringly superb it is.

But there’s no need to take just my word for it. Go buy a copy, and discover it for yourself.

You won’t be disappointed.

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