In Sorcery’s Shadow by Paul Stoller review

In Sorcery's Shadow - Paul Stoller

In Sorcery’s Shadow – Paul Stoller

In Sorcery’s Shadow is an odd book choice to review on a site such as this. While on the one hand it is a stellar work that deserves accolade right alongside Stephen King and Homer, it is also something very special: it is an ethnography.

I have to make it clear what this means. This is not ‘based on a true story’ like The Mothman Prophecies or Apollo 13. These aren’t true events that have been fictionalized and dramatized by the pen of the writer… This is an actual scientific study by an anthropologist dealing with the sorcery sub-culture in the Songhay region of Niger. Everything that happens in it is verifiable and true. It is not a novel.

This makes it hard to review. Much like the Odyssey, I find it difficult to comment on such scholarly endeavors. But still, the hope is that you will read this and go out and pick it up, because you should. It’s a fast, wonderful read. At times it’s easy to forget it’s fiction, and at those times you remember you can’t help but have your faith shaken, or even become terrified.

The story features the anthropologist Paul Stoller as he conducts research in Niger over the corse of four years. During his first year there he is approached by a Sorko (sorcerer) named Djibo who interprets a sign from god to mean that he is to train Paul in the ways of the Sorko. This is a tremendous opportunity, as Stoller relates, because very few anthropologists have been able to successfully and seriously penetrate the world of sorcery.

Through the coarse of his studies, Stoller becomes increasingly unnerved in the very real power the rituals have over people. At one pout he is asked to curse a mean European and does so, only to become horrified when it seems to actually work! As he becomes more and more powerful, he is also magically attacked by other Sorkos, causing him to be paralyzed from the waist down and his life to become endangered.

Again, this is a scientific book that is taught in Universities. It’s as real as it gets. That’s whats scary. On that level, this textbook is more unnerving than any horror novel I have read.

Where the book falls apart is that, because it’s all true, it’s fairly anti-climactic. Normally I wouldn’t hold that against it, but it seems as though some editor or co-author Cheryl Oakes went to great effort to make it SEEM climactic. For instance, there is great tension building throughout he second half of the book between Stoller and Djibo… But it comes down to a passive-aggressive hissyfit between the two of them. And it’s not me reading into the text manufacturing tension: the name of the chapter is ‘Showdown with Sorko Djibo’. That’s an almost comic misappropriation of the events, and hurts the books final score.

Still, it’s a great book that sucks you in and teaches you a little along the way. Sure the ending is a little disappointing, but if I really had an issue with that I wouldn’t read Stephen King. And to be fair, this book has an excuse.

Almost perfect.

In Sorcery's Shadow: A Memoir of Apprenticeship among the Songhay of NigerIn Sorcery’s Shadow: A Memoir of Apprenticeship among the Songhay of Niger by Paul Stoller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Sorcery’s Shadow is an odd book choice to review on a site such as this.

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