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The Book of English Magic

As someone who writes the odd piece of fantastical fiction, I always strive to make it believable. For many areas of the story it is easy to draw on real world parallels; looking at the biology of reptiles to inform dragon behaviour, for example, or medieval architecture to imagine what fantasy settlements might look like. One area that I often struggle with, however, is Magic, so when I saw The Book of English Magic I thought it would be a useful piece of research as well as an interesting read about how the beliefs of people have shifted over time.

Considering that one of the authors was the head of The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids at the time of writing, The Book of English Magic is a far more objective read than I was expecting and I have done Philip Carr-Gomm a disservice by assuming it wouldn't be. This is not the first book on Magic that I have read and I have found they tend to either lean heavily towards new age spiritualism, or else be little more than a collection of dry anthropological papers. This one, however, manages to avoid either extreme and reads more like a work of popular history; albeit one founded on the premise that the supernatural is real.

Any book of its length covering such a large time period can never cover the subject material in-depth, but I felt it provided a very good general overview. My complains were few and mainly centred around the sections on humanity's earliest religious beliefs: I felt the authors had a tendency to present their own interoperation of the available evidence as if it was established fact, even when only one of a number of possibilities; we can never know entirely how people felt before the advent of writing (and even then not with any certainty, of course) and I felt the book wasn't quite explicit enough about this.

As soon as the book advanced to eras for which we have written evidence (and even know the names of some of the practitioners), however, the quality of the writing picked up and turned into a lively account and overview of the various magical traditions of Albion. I expected to find the references to contemporary magical traditions that draw on particular time periods a distraction, but they did not detract from the overall feel of the book at all and I can see the value to those who are reading the book as more of a practical guide to get involved in such things.

I started the book half expecting it to be a history of britain through a new age or neo pagan lens, but was pleasantly surprised by it's equal treatment of sometimes contradictory belief systems and it's detailed bibliography. Highly recommend as an introductory text or primer - I certainly now have several more avenues of research open for my stories - but might be disappointing for its lack of finer details; an inevitability when trying to cover such a large period of time in a single book.