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Monday, October 15, 2012

Love of Shadows: A Novel In Praise of the Persecuted

I have a tendency to read books in a series out of order if I am drawn to the description of a later book.  The author generously provided me with an ARC when I expressed interest in reviewing this book.   Here is my review.


Although this is the second book in The Healer’s Shadow series, I didn’t hesitate to plunge into it without any previous acquaintance with the work of Zoe Brooks.  I always expect that an author will want to make sure that readers like me aren’t too much out of the loop.  I am happy to report that Love of Shadows, the sequel to Girl In The Glass stands on its own. 
Reviews of the first book categorize it as magical realism.  I initially imagined that the Shadows might be similar to Jane Yolen's Dark Sisters in Sister Light, Sister DarkYet after reading this second novel in its entirety, I actually thought this series is more similar to Ursula Le Guin’s books set in the fictional country of Orsinia.  Like Malafrena and Orsinian Tales, Zoe Brooks deals with a real world type of setting with realistic characters and problems.  Her fictional country could be any second or third world country where old traditions have been condemned by rulers who are certain that modern Western ideas are superior. The mysterious Shadows could be any despised minority who are viewed as less than human by minds darkened with fear of difference. 

 Judith, the traditional healer protagonist, has no paranormal powers.  She has learned how to recognize and utilize the plants that have been used in healing for many centuries.  Herbalism is often viewed as primitive superstition because modern people have forgotten that many drugs prescribed by doctors are synthetic forms of  the plant medicines in the herbalist’s pharmacopeia. 

I didn't know about the connection between herbs and modern medicine until an herbalist friend offered me willow bark tea for a toothache.  She then added that aspirin is synthetic willow bark.  See the history of how willow bark became aspirin at White Willow Bark on 

When I researched the specific plants mentioned in this book, I learned some facts I hadn't known.  For example, Judith purchased "sweet balsam suffused with amber".  I discovered that amber starts off as a tree resin, not as jewelry. The jewelry is made with fossilized amber.  See Amber on Wikipedia  . I also found out that both balsam and amber are "tree exudates" which is anything that oozes out of a tree according to Exudate in plants on Green Facts .  The difference between a resin and a balsam is that Cinnamic acid is added to a balsam.  How To Use The Healing Power of Balsam Fir  recommends this balsam for sore throats, congestion and as an antiseptic.  I could not find any healing use for amber that is well-attested. In my search for "smorage" , I came across two inquiries about it from Zoe Brooks.  This shows that she was making an effort to be authentic in her herb lore.  If  Love of Shadows had been a fantasy novel, she could have invented plants that exist in her fantasy realm, but she chose not to do that.  Zoe Brooks described on   Herb Society Forum and  Wise Woman Forum  how her grandmother used a plant she called "smorage" in the hopes that someone on one of these two sites could identify it.  The first speculated that it could be plantain.  The second imagined that it could be borage.   There is a link there to a page about the uses of borage  at Herbal Remedies Info

 Zoe Brooks  dramatically illustrates how the issue of prohibition of herbal medicine is also an economic one. When the herbalists that served village communities are banned, it is the health of those who can’t afford doctors that suffers most.  This is shown without preaching through allowing us to experience the events of a well-devised plot.

Although it was not included with the ARC of Love of Shadows, I have read Zoe Brooks' essay about the persecution of traditional healers on her blog.  In the contemporary U.S. context, there aren't denunciations of herbalists as witches, but there are occasional articles that wonder if plants are really safe, or mention that some people who haven't studied herbs  had become ill using them because they didn't know the proper dosage.  I ought to mention that this problem of overdosing is far more common with pharmaceutical drugs.  Neither herbs nor drugs should be used by untrained persons without previous consultation with a professional.  People should be educated on this issue, and treat herbal remedies with respect.  Zoe Brooks' fictional Judith studied herbs for some time.

Love of Shadows is the work of a writer who is hitting her stride.  Zoe Brooks writes about issues that she cares about, and teaches her readers to care about them by creating characters that get under our skins and into our hearts.


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