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Review – The Forbidden Book

by Joscelyn Godwin, Guido Mina di Sospiro
(Disinformation Press, April 2012, ASIN: B007UPDB68)

I have to say that when I was sent my review copy of The Forbidden Book from The Daily Grail Castle, I was rather interested. As a long-time student of the alchemical sex-magic form known as The Moist Way, the idea of a conspiracy thriller based on this subject, especially one co-written by noted Western Esoteric Tradition scholar Joscelyn Godwin, was more than appealing.

My interest was piqued even more when the first couple of pages of my copy included fulsome advance praise from such notables as Graham Hancock, Mitch Horovitz and Gary Lachman. Sadly, I have not come here to join in with their praises for this book. I have come to bury it.

The best way to describe The Forbidden Book is that it reads like the overly-pretentious novelisation of a bad Italian Giallo movie. Or, a failed attempt to make a Catholic-friendly Dan Brown novel.

The set-up is this: Our Hero, Irish-Italian-American and Catholic scholar Leo Kavenaugh, is summoned to an Italian villa by his college crush to help research a mysterious tome, the Forbidden Book of the title, against the wishes of her uncle, The (obvious from the first moment) Evil Baron. His explorations of the text lead to a centuries-old conspiracy of elite noblemen misusing the hidden sexual-alchemical teachings of the work to secure and maintain their power, including the forcing of a religious near-civil war across Europe…

…and Murder.

If that sounds interesting and exciting… well, it really isn’t.

I am a genuine admirer of the art of pulp fiction. In fact, I think there needs to be be a greater level of storytelling skill in a pulp writer in order to be able to write a fast-paced potboiler than is often evinced in the more sober literary forms. Such skills are not in evidence here.

There is not a single person in this book whose characterisation rises even to the level of two-dimensional. Our Hero, Leo (who might as well be called Neo for all his obvious nature from the first page as The Chosen One) is the closest thing to a developed character in the whole book – this characterisation pretty much consists of his constant self-punishing about an affair which led to his lover getting an abortion, which interferes with his crush on The Heroine. Oh, and he’s a member of the Catholic Third Orders – the Opus-Dei-esque Catholic laity – whose studies of the The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola apparently give him the ability to instantly grasp the depths of alchemical knowledge that usually take decades to acquire. Frankly, he might as well have had it downloaded into his brain from The Matrix.

(Yet he’s a strangely passive Monomyth hero. Other than committing two surprisingly successful amateur break-ins, he spends most of his time wringing his hands at the situation, pining for The Heroine, vomiting and going temporarily blind when he receives a new download of spiritual data… and, at one point, disappearing for days into a monastery while his beloved is missing presumed kidnapped.)

The other characters never even reach this level of depth. Besides a few background quirks, each is a mere shell. Notable is the fact that all but one of the point-of-view characters is either a member of the upper-upper class or a scholar – the sole exception, the dogged police investigator, has literally no identifying features other than being a dogged police investigator.

Another point regarding characterisation: every single woman described in the book is either gorgeous or ancient. Nothing in between. The actual writing is so atrocious at times I actually looked to see if it had been translated from another language into English. An example from early in the book:

This was no mere villa, thought Leo as they ground to a halt before a columned portico, but a minor palace. Painted in the faded yellow color of polenta, grand and genteel, it gave him a feeling of ease.

All I could think when I read this was, Where the hell do these guys get their polenta?!

The plot is both labyrinthine and risible. All of the main characters commit the unforgivable  sin of ‘carrying the idiot ball’ – acting in a palpably stupid and implausible manner in order to sustain the weight of the story. For example, the plot turns on the destruction or interception of vital letters between or about the two lead characters – three times! – for spurious emotional reasons, simply to forestall their discovery of vital information before the narrative needs them to know.

The significant murder of a main character and the framing of another for the killing (the investigation of which dominates the last two-thirds of the book) is executed so poorly as to leave major forensic clues to the culprit, yet supposedly the body is disposed of so easily as to require little effort on the part of the murderer. Likewise, the hero finds it laughably easy to avoid a manhunt for him later in the book, while transporting the drugged kidnapped person he’s just rescued.

The authors’ grasp of the tropes of the successful police procedural are as shaky as their understanding of the popular novel in general – although the technical  and forensic details are clearly well-researched, their delivery moves neither the plot nor the reader terribly much.

This apparent indifference to the nuances of actually telling a story leads to such implausibilities as the Evil Baron being simultaneously a master of mind control and utterly unable to secure the one unexpurgated copy of the Forbidden Book from being stolen by an utterly incompetent thief.

Even the rise of Christian-versus-Muslim violence fomented by The Evil Baron’s (small, strangely badly-organised) followers across the whole of Europe is treated with an odd sense of distance and disdain. A comparison can be made here to the atrocious Left Behind Christian book series: a major calamity (in this case fast-boiling Muslim/Christian violence across Europe, in Left Behind it’s the Rapture) is mostly portrayed in terms of occasional news flashes and how the events interfere with the main characters’ travel logistics.

(It occurs to me that, in a book where Muslim extremism features heavily, the absence of a single Muslim point-of-view character is an odd omission. For that matter, I don’t think there’s a single POV character who isn’t, in some way, a practicing Catholic…)

There’s a palpable sense of scorn and condescension all across the actual story-telling, in my opinion – a feeling that the authors are lowering themselves to write at this level in order to bring their Brilliant Ideas to the Great Unwashed. There’s also a nasty scent of envy in their wistful descriptions of the power and privilege of the upper classes – a feeling that they would do so much better if they had the same power. This goes across to their descriptions of Leo’s exploration of the Forbidden Book, comparing their somewhat pure Good Catholic Boy to the Evil Baron; a feeling that the concept of Elite Man-Gods ruling a rigid caste system would be a perfectly fine thing as long as the right man is at the helm.

The only time there’s any real passion or interest in the book is the extracts from the Forbidden Book itself. According to the afterword, there is an actual text of that name which formed the basis of their exegesis – but as it’s only in Italian I cannot comment on its contents. The supposed excerpts from the book read agreeably and authentically like the alchemical texts of the Seventeenth Century, if (of course) considerably more explicit in their praxis.

Yet even here, there’s a lack of depth. For example, much is made of the Twelve Fruits of the Tree of Life – the occult powers the Hero/alchemist gains on this path… and they only actually name five of them! As elsewhere in the book, there’s a strong sense of the authors simply being excessively pleased with themselves – an odd stance as, frankly, their entire spin on the alchemical path could be derived from a cursory read of Julius Evola (oddly not mentioned in the text or afterword, especially given his Fascist leanings) and Paschal Beverly Randolph.  (The actual sex-magic scenes are, not surprisingly, neither erotic nor interesting – mere descriptions of the mechanical act combined with a spiritual gloss.)

And yet none of this even begins to convey how very bad the ending of the book is. The Hero rescues the Heroine from a Fate Worse Than Death, escaping to Antibes on a friend’s yacht. The Evil Baron’s plan… just stops. The police investigation… just stops. The brewing civil war in Europe… just stops. The Hero’s development of the Ultimate Alchemical Power… just stops.

If only the authors had.

  1. Thanks for saving me from this!
    I had looked forward to reading Da Brown’s Da Vinci Code, and when the book finally arrived, I was so, so dissapointed. Now having read other Dan Brown books, I think the stories are average and the storytelling about the same.

    So thanks Cat for saving me from something that appears even worse!

    1. I’m not sure if this book is
      I’m not sure if this book is actually worse than Dan Brown – I’ve never read the damn things! A couple of much better books in this vein (if not as action-oriented) are mentioned below in my comment to Levitating Cat.

    1. re. Mercurius

      I’m a huge fan of Harpur’s work – I consider his Daemonic Reality an absolute necessity for any Fortean. I was lucky enough to pick up the trade paperback reissue of Mercurius a couple of years back & it is indeed excellent. It looks like has a few copies at thirteen quid or so.

      Another fine book in this regard is Lindsay Clarke’s The Chymical Wedding, which is a thinly-fictionalised retelling of the extraordinary story of Mary Anne Atwood & the writing of A Suggestive Inquiry Into the Hermetic Mystery.

    2. Mercurius
      No, no – Mercurius;or, the Marriage Heaven and Earth is freely and inexpensively available, having been reprinted by The Squeeze Press (an imprint of Wooden Books)…

  2. re Forbidden Book & Harpur
    Thanks for the review, will certainly avoid it as I have avoided Dan Brown.

    On Patrick Harpur, yes Daimonic Reality is a landmark book, very impressive. I cannot recommend it highly enough to those who haven’t read it. Harpur says more in a few spare lines than many others have said in whole books. It’s why I would love to get hold of a copy of Mercurius and anything else that Harpur has written for that matter.

    1. Harpur’s books
      Easily done – The Squeeze Press has re-issued both Mercurius and The Philosophers’ Secret Fire! They’re on Amazon. ‘The Complete Guide to the Soul’ is issued by Rider. So there…

  3. an important meditation on the implications of esoteric practice
    I had a rather different take on The Forbidden Book, reading it in light of the authors’ real world experience in studying these movements. One should remember that Julius Evola was working within a network of socially active Adepts, and I think that this book does a wonderful job of exploring the responsibilities of esoteric practice. He is not explicitly mentioned, allowing the character of Baron Emmanuelle to embody some of the current of practice Evola was working within.

    By responsibility I mean, the responsibility to be aware of the reality of what we are looking at. The Magus as defined by Giordano Bruno is an explicitly political figure, Merlin behind Arthur, Plato behind the Philosopher King, the Eminence Grise behind Richelieu.

    In The Forbidden Book we see this methodology in a way that is more contemporarily relevant. Emanuele Riviera della Motta’s methods fit within the framework of ideological warfare, albeit taken from a much deeper level. I was reminded of Mark Sageman’s work Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), and his analysis of how ideology acts within political movements.

    In that esoteric philosophy deals with the manipulation of the imagination, it is a very powerful political force, and those skilled in it can be powerful figures in moving society. If we look at Christopher McIntosh’s Rose Cross in the Age of Reason, we can see religious tolerance laws being affected by politically active members of one of the Rosicrucian orders. And look today to see Evangelical leaders like Rick Joyner engaging with groups that come out of these same lineages.

    Even a figure like Fulcanelli, within the various personalities that were active within Eugène Canseliet circle were scientists who had major acheivements.

    While the Catholic angle may seem odd based on popular media on esotericism, Rene Guenon was actually part of a traditionalist Catholic movement during the development of his esoteric symbology. This movement was an active political force due to its membership.

    The Forbidden Book also acts as a meditation on the tradition itself. Some of those excerpts from Il Mondo Magico in the book are actually original pieces that Godwin and Mina di Sospiro wrote, these parts representing text from the family in the novel’s hereditary copy.

    With a strong knowledge of the traditional allegorical methodology of the novel, I think that the authors’ have done a wonderful job of creating a contemporary novel that stands on its own, while also incorporating deeper interplay amongst the narrative layers.

    Here is a link to my review, which Cat has already read, it goes a bit farther in analysing the influences of The Forbidden Book:

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