From the far edge of the bed on the floor, Livvy had to look up, way up, to see the intruder in his entirety. He seemed to be looking right at her but the mask made it impossible to tell. She sucked in a breath and blinked as recognition sank in. Even for a techno-shaman, a kachina in the bedroom wasn’t exactly part of the drill. In fact, it was impossible.
Its enormous feather-fringed mask began to tilt towards her. Heart hammering, she couldn’t help but stare at the top-feathers as they twitched a slow path across the ceiling — until she realised the kachina was reaching for her. She flattened against the wall, pushed to her feet and slid up, unsteady on the mattress. The kachina jumped back, the pellets in his rattle bursting to life before rolling back into silence as he froze. At the bottom of his turquoise-painted mask, a wide upside-down triangle made it look like he was grinning but the body language was tense.
What was a kachina doing in the real world? How could it manifest here? She had never heard of such a thing and it shouldn’t even be possible. That was it, she thought. It was not possible, therefore this was not a Hopi god. This was an impostor. It had to be.
Livvy is a shaman working in LA, struggling to make ends meet while providing her services as a healer to those in need. It’s not an easy gig, working in a business that’s ignored or derided by wider society, with most customers only calling when they become desperate enough to request help despite their suspicion or disbelief. A thoroughly modern woman, Livvy uses electronic goggles — patched with duct tape — to hypnotise herself into the trance state through which she can access the spirit world of the multiverse. Along with a growing community of fellow techno-shamans, she rejects the traditional hallucinogenic drugs, finding the goggles more reliable and with fewer unpredictable side effects.
When a kachina turns up in her apartment one night, though, everything changes. As the Lightning Shaman, Livvy has known since her vision quest that she was different, but it’s a different matter entirely for multiverse spirits to start appearing in the real world. Even SK, the dwarf who acts as her manager and agent, doesn’t have an explanation. Combined with unprovoked attacks in the underworld when she’s working, it’s clear that something strange is going on. Shaman, Healer, Heretic is a pacy, absorbing read which follows Livvy’s attempts to figure out what’s behind these occurrences — and how to stop it.
There are rules that keep shamans apart, in the course of normal events, although their paths might occasionally cross at Mamacita’s specialist store. But these are not normal events, and Livvy realises that she’ll need other shamans on side if they’re to stop the chaos. Despite the traditional prohibitions, they’ll need to work together, but the shamanic community is reluctant to engage.
The other shamans are a diverse bunch, with their own quirks and personalities that shine through from the moment Livvy crosses their various thresholds. Ursula is a commanding black woman who speaks of herself in the third person and maintains an aloof demeanour; Alvina is ancient, thoughtful, and seldom uses goggles; Wan-li is a savvy, hard-nosed businesswoman with an eye on the bottom line. Compared to these older women Livvy feels like an amateur, but their dismissal makes her angry, and ever more determined to succeed.
Livvy herself is a long way from perfect, which makes her easy to relate to. She has a barely-suppressed drinking problem, and she’s prone to emotional outbursts when things aren’t going her way, both symptoms of her wider inner turmoil. With her pure white hair she cuts a striking figure, but in the real world, she’s in most respects an ordinary young woman. In the multiverse, however, she’s a powerful shaman with an unusual gift which she’s still struggling to embrace and control. This theme runs throughout the series, as Livvy gradually matures and learns more about herself and her place in the world.
The worldbuilding, in both the real world and the multiverse, is meticulous. I loved all the little touches, from the duct tape on Livvy’s goggles to the cut of SK’s suits, that accentuate the setting and its inhabitants. Shamanic lore is blended with modern technology to create a plausible route to the multiverse, and the different shamans all draw on their own cultural traditions. The underworld is fluid and obeys only its own rules, and from spirit helpers to afflictions of the soul, it was clearly and beautifully drawn. Similarly, the relationships between characters are sometimes heartening, sometimes disturbing, but always believable.
Shaman, Healer, Heretic is the first in a series of novels featuring Livvy, SK, and the shamans of LA. The fifth and final instalment was published this summer.