Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu trilogy are among my favorite books, partially because of the beautiful prose and their exploration of gender but mostly because the main protagonists are vibrant and fascinating. Since discovering them I’ve wanted to read more of her books, and though there are a lot more of them left for me to read, I’ve yet to find one as compelling as the Wraeththu books. The latest book in my quest to read more by this author, Sign for the Sacred, was more engaging than some of her other work I’ve read but fell short of Wreaththu. I still enjoyed Sign for the Sacred, though, even if it seemed slow at times.
Sign for the Sacred–currently a stand alone fantasy novel even though Storm Constantine has never thought this was the end of the story and hopes to write the sequel in full some day–was written and first published in the early 1990s. My edition, released through Stark House in 2002, also includes extras providing some fascinating insight into its creation and the artistic process: an introduction from the author about the story’s themes and her inspiration from the Goth music scene, an excerpt from an early version of the novel that was quite different, and a few chapters from the unfinished sequel, Death By Sweetness.
This novel is the tale of Resenence Jeopardy, a prophet whom many believe to be a threat to the powerful Church of Ixmarity—and yet, it’s not completely his story even though he’s the thread connecting all the main storylines, which are told from the perspectives of individuals seeking him.
Lucien, like Jeopardy, was once a Vibrancer, a dancer who performed routines with religious significance to the Church of Ixmarity. Also like Jeopardy, Lucien was a slave purchased by the House of Mandru, and is the only main character who knew him before he became a renowned prophet. He is also the only one who was ever close to him, as the two performed together and were also lovers for awhile. Lucien’s story, the most prominent one, largely consists of his telling the story of his past to another he encountered during his travels, beginning with his family being forced to give him to the Church at a young age and ending with how he came to be on his current quest.
Delilah is impelled to pursue Jeopardy after everyone else in her village dies due to a cursed visitor, doomed to mindlessly slaughter everyone he encounters once the moon rises and infect them with a plague when the sun reigns. For some reason, Delilah is immune to both of these and feels that must mean she and this man are bound somehow. When he tells her of the only one who could completely still his affliction—Resenence Jeopardy—Delilah is intrigued and decides to join him on his expedition to reunite with the prophet.
Cleo, a poisoner’s wife, is bored with her life until her husband approaches her about a difficult business situation. A rich client came to him with his sister’s child: the son of Resenence Jeopardy, who, like all of the sorcerer’s children, will be tortured and killed by the Church. His uncle wanted a more peaceful death for the boy but was unable to go through with it at the last moment, prompting Cleo’s husband to turn to her for advice. Cleo is immediately taken with the child and cares for him herself, but his uncle changes his mind again, fearing the consequences of the Church’s displeasure to himself and his family, and Cleo is devastated when she returns from visiting a friend to discover the boy is gone, killed by her husband at his client’s wish. In her grief, Cleo embarks on a journey to find the father of the boy that she loved and lost.
Though not one of the central stories, the Archimagery of the Church of Ixmarity and an ecclesiarch within the Church named Implexion also have related perspectives woven into the tale. Implexion fears and despises Resenence Jeopardy—he’s the one who advocated for his children to be put to death—but some around him harbor concerns that his hatred for the prophet is becoming a dangerous obsession.
Despite having different thoughts, views, and feelings about Resenence Jeopardy, they will all be changed because of him.
Sign for the Sacred can be untidy and meandering, but there’s an art to it making it more reflective of reality since the story and characters do not seem scripted: at times, the characters’ actions are frustrating and not entirely comprehensible, but they’re all the more human because of this. It also incorporates a lot of compelling themes, from journeys both literal and metaphorical, to power wielded by both an individual and an organized group, to the ability for a variety of individuals to have different perceptions of the same events and actions. Although it’s not a book that inspired new thoughts on any of these themes, it is one that put them together in striking way, leaving plenty to think about related to the story and the fate of the characters.
My favorite part was Lucien and his tale. Toward the beginning, his perspective was actually the least engaging of the three major ones since it started with his travels instead of a transformative event. Once the main focus turned to his past I was hooked. He’s the one I thought had the most character development since it showed his entire life, not just the present or a brief overview of his past. It’s also through his eyes that we get the most information about Resenence Jeopardy, since he’s the only one who not only knew him before he was famous but also was close to him at any point.
Though I found it interesting to read about others’ reactions to Jeopardy, it took me awhile to completely understand the fascination with him. By the end of the story I could see his appeal, even if it was largely due to the mystery surrounding him. Lucien’s first encounter with him was unpleasant, and he was often too self-absorbed to listen to other people so I found him to be a jerk earlier in the tale. Since he was supposed to be a figure who engendered strong feelings, whether love or hate, that’s a reasonable reaction, but later I had difficulty seeing what was so special about him that anyone would care about him either way. I don’t think his charm always translated well through the written word since his allure was not profound speeches or ideas but beauty and charisma. Toward the end, there were enough unanswered questions about the precise nature of his power and influence that I understood the obsession with him as a prophet, even aside from being intellectually aware that people found him to be a magnetic individual.
My biggest problem with Sign for the Sacred is that there was too much focus on literal journeys, making Delilah and Cleo’s sections seem rather long-winded at times. After they both decided to seek Resenence Jeopardy most of their perspectives were dedicated to mystical encounters and the people they met along the way. Though this is part of what made it ring true and they contained some important scenes it also seemed much too drawn out at times, especially since I didn’t think either character was as fleshed out as Lucien (which made sense since his part was his life story).
Like the central figure binding the various perspectives together, Sign for the Sacred is an elusive book, leaving a lot open to interpretation so readers—like the characters—can have different ideas about what transpired. Though it contains familiar elements, the author’s rich vocabulary and approach make it a unique book that stands out as different from most fantasy books I’ve read, and I found it enjoyable even if not as absorbing as some of the other books I’ve read by Storm Constantine.
My Rating: 8/10
Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.
This book is December’s selection from a poll on Patreon.