Copyright 2012 Freeman Presson, all rights reserved
Here we have a tale, vintage 1935, of a fairly classic sort in the occult fiction genre: woman who is just magical enough, and just sexy enough, to be irresistible to a left-hand magician, but not powerful enough to get out of trouble without her adept older brother and an unlikely assistant. Had this book been written by a lesser Mage than Fortune, my review would probably end there with a “move on, nothing to see here.”
Much recent occult fiction has been penned by those who were, on average, better writers, but were in over their heads in describing magic. Among the contemporary first-class mages who have attempted novels: I could stomach two pages of Donald Tyson’s big novel Necronomicon; Crowley’s fiction is skillful but oh, so self-serving; The little bit I have read of Poke Runyon’s fiction is promising, especially if you like SF/Fantasy; and Lon Milo Duquette is the co-author of a novelization of Crowley’s checkered career in the Golden Dawn, which should be good if you can handle One More Crowley Book.
Speaking of Crowley, the Sinister Magus in The Winged Bull could not possibly have been based on anyone else. This leads me to suspect that Fortune made a point of leaving off her rose-colored glasses when looking at Uncle Al. She disclaims having met him by 1935, and does not mention him in her history of the Magical Battle of Britain; however, Some People say she did confer with Crowley at least briefly during that period1. There could be any number of reasons why she would not mention this if it did happen.
The Winged Bull is titled after a classic motif in Babylonian iconography, the Bull of Heaven with a bull’s body, man’s head, and eagle’s wings. Its metaphorical significance is developed thoughout the book.
As I said in my “Tease” for this review, our Unlikely Hero, Ted Murchison, is not doing well for himself after a powerful career in the Great War. Almost completely at loose ends, he wanders in to the British Museum on a foggy night and has a close encounter with a Babylonian winged bull. Then he wanders outside, and for no reason immediately obvious to himself (or the reader) sonorously invokes Pan. He is immediately accosted by his former commanding officer, Alick Brangwyn, and hired as a secretary for five pounds a week. There are few secretarial duties, of course; Brangwyn desperately needs him to become the magical consort, not to mention bodyguard, of his sister Ursula. She will eventually succumb to the wiles of the villain, Astley, as expressed through his cat’s-paw, the debonair Fouldes, if he cannot prevent it.
Because the situation at the beginning is already an emergency, Murchison is thrown in over his head, and he and Ursula have to work out quickly what their proper relationship is and if and how they are going to work together.
Much well-crafted dialogue and a decent, not excessive, number of plot twists later, we get our answer. Some of those plot twists seem quaint because they are based on 1935 assumptions about sex roles, but on the whole, the flow and pace of the novel work well.
If you are likely to be bothered by yet another hatchet job on Crowley, you might want to give this book a pass; I am not going to try to defend her for that, other than to say that readers who know something of her and Crowley will be able to see why she thought as she did.
The discussion of magic in The Winged Bull is not extensive, but it is accurate and inspiring. I hit upon a few things I just happened to need to be reminded of.
So, if you like a good magical yarn, and can ignore the exaggerated attack on The Great Beast 666, and the typical 1935 level of sexism, by all means dive in to this one.
1. There is a vague mention of correspondence between them in 1945-46, at the end of both their lives, in Gareth Knight’s biography of Fortune.
[Complimentary review copy from Red Wheel/Weiser gratefully acknowledged, opinions my own, your mileage may vary, usw.]