On Part 1, FROM PUBLISHERS WEEKLY:
Morris generates some genuine chills and thrills in this entertaining series opener that alternates between the 14th and 21st centuries. The author gets things off to a good start with a powerful opening set in 1356 Prague, as an herbalist named Fen’ka is burned at the stake for being a witch. With her last breath, she curses her killers—”When this fire dies, let all their nightmares come to life.” Next, the action shifts to 2002, as Magdalena, who works in Charles University’s literature and folklore department, encounters Fen’ka’s ghost after receiving a warning from a fortune-teller. The author’s background in medieval history stands him in good stead in the 14th-century sections, as he slips in interesting details to help make the fantastic plausible.
On Part 1, FROM SHE-WOLF:
Wellspring has two parallel narratives. The first takes place in 1356 and tells of the unauthorized execution of a woman, Fen’ka, for witchcraft – ‘unauthorized’ because, as the narrative explains, no witches were officially burnt in late medieval Prague. As she dies, Fen’ka utters a series of curses, calling destruction down on her enemies – but also on the city itself.
The second narrative follows the story of Magdalena, a lonely young woman from Prague who becomes obsessed with the occult following a tarot reading. After a startling encounter with Fen’ka (and an otherworldly guide), Magdalena embarks on the task of clearing the witch’s name. With the help of the spirit of Madame de Thebes, a fortune-teller who was tortured, killed and cursed by the Nazis, and two mysterious visitors to the city, Magdalena begins to acquire the knowledge and skills she will need to succeed in her quest.
From the opening chapter, Morris reveals a keen eye for historical detail – particularly as regards late medieval beliefs about witchcraft and the treatment of witches. While the scene of Fen’ka’s condemnation includes many ‘standard’ features of this sort of story, it also contains several unusual and precise historical details. For example, the binding of Fen’ka is described thus:
‘Pulling her to her feet, they next pushed her head and shoulders down and tied her left wrist to her right ankle and her right wrist to her left ankle. In this traditional position, not only was the woman’s body made into an X, a version of St. Andrew’s Cross (and therefore her body itself was a prayer-made-flesh that God’s truth would be manifest), but it was also that much more difficult for her to swim and exonerate herself by propelling herself along the bottom of the river.’
Similarly, the later fourteenth-century chapters, which outline the punishments resulting from Fen’ka’s all-purpose curse, weave historical detail, characterization and Czech folklore together with a rather light touch. Each of the subsequent historical chapters reads almost like a standalone short story, and I found them all engaging and compelling tales.
But Wellspring is not simply a historical fantasy, it’s an ‘urban-historical fantasy’, and half of the chapters take place in modern-day Prague (well, Prague in 2002). These also contain elements of Bohemian legend and folklore, as well as reference to the unique history of the city. Following the protagonist Magdalena as she puts together pieces of the historical/supernatural puzzle, learns about the occult arts and works as an administrator at the Charles University, these chapters comprise the main narrative arc of the novel, ending on a cliffhanger that points to the events to come in the subsequent books in the series.
The 2002 chapters have a different feel to the fourteenth-century ones, but make use of the same mix of action, characterization and exposition. Occasionally, the exposition is somewhat heavy, but the subject matter is interesting enough to carry this. I enjoyed the way the historical and contemporary chapters worked together. While they are, essentially, discrete narratives, the overall picture builds as the reader switches from one to the other and back again.
Unfortunately, I found the contemporary chapters a bit flatter than the medieval ones. This is mostly due to the presentation of the protagonist. I found Magdalena to be a bit of an unengaging heroine, a far cry from the diverse and feisty female characters in the medieval chapters. Magdalena’s lack of interaction with other characters is probably the main issue. She has, to all intents and purposes, no friends. The one character who is ostensibly supposed to perform this role is dismissed and ignored on numerous occasions, and there are very few conversations between the two women. The result of this is that the narrative is almost entirely presented through Magdalena’s internal dialogue and commentary, and this is not always very compelling. In places, the heroine’s self-explanation (occasionally accompanied by a few too many exclamation marks) was a little hard to believe.
One particularly frustrating example is near the beginning of the book. Magdalena travels to New York (on her own) for a holiday. There, she pays for a tarot card reading from a woman with a Central European accent who claims to be a ‘gypsy’. Magdalena is overwhelmed by the excitement of this: ‘A professional gypsy telling her fortune seemed too good to be true.’ She exclaims: ‘This is the highlight of my trip to New York!’ Her reaction seems utterly out of proportion to the rather average events of the card reading. (As a side note, I would say that Magdalena’s response didn’t ring true as a European response to seeing someone reading fortunes and claiming Romany blood – Europe is hardly known for its warm relationship to the Romany people, and I think every fortune-teller I’ve ever seen has the word ‘gypsy’ on their signage somewhere.)
The backdrop to Magdalena’s quest to exonerate Fen’ka interested me – and had a lot to offer. The protagonist works as a secretary to an academic at Charles University; she is asked to assist with the organization of two visiting conferences – one on Evil and the other on Monsters. I must admit to some personal interest here. These conferences are based on long-running conferences run by Inter-disciplinary.net, and I have attended both on numerous occasions. Magdalena’s dabbling in the world of the occult leads her to believe that two powerful allies in her fight will be arriving in the guise of conference delegates.
However, this backdrop was marred a little by the presentation of Magdalena. Her wide-eyed enthusiasm for conference organization was a little grating, and not wholly plausible. I am yet to meet someone who works in university admin who is that excited at the prospect of a group of visiting academics, particularly a group who do not speak the local language and know little of the local area. That’s a headache, not an honour. By the time the conference delegates arrive, Magdalena’s enthusiasm has tipped over into near-sycophancy: for instance, she describes the accent of one English academic as sounding ‘so elegant, so refined […] that she imagined she were being addressed by the royalty of the academic world’.
Nevertheless, the arrival of the conference delegates allows for more interaction between Magdalena and the somewhat larger-than-life visitors. As far as I know, Rising will pick up where the events of Wellspring left off, and I’m looking forward to seeing things develop with the expanded cast list. There is real promise in the final chapter of the book, which suggests exciting and compelling developments in the next instalment. I hope that the new arrivals will bring out a stronger side to Magdalena’s character, as well as continuing the intense and climactic consequences of Fen’ka’s curse.
Overall, I enjoyed Wellspring. As a piece of historical fantasy set in one of my favourite cities it worked very well. Morris’s writing is strong and the plot is gripping. My concerns about characterization in the contemporary chapters perhaps go some way to revealing where the author’s strengths lie – I believe Morris’s heart is in the Middle Ages, and this is no bad thing at all. The wealth of knowledge, research and affection shown for the fourteenth century (and for Prague) are enough on their own to recommend the sequels to me. And if Magdalena is a little weak and naïve for my tastes… well, there’s always Fen’ka…
On Part 1, FROM PERSPECTIVES ON TAROT:
“Come Hell Or High Water” is a trilogy that blends medieval Eastern European history with Tarot and the occult in a very believable manner. Stephen Morris is just the man to write this book – he has degrees in medieval history and theology from Yale University and St. Vladimr’s Orthodox Theological Academy, and has previously written on Late Antiquity and Byzantine church life.
While I am not necessarily a fan of occult/paranormal writing, I was interested in the Tarot and occult background in this book, as well as the setting … Prague in the 1356 and 2002. Those of us in the Tarot world have seen facets of Prague, thanks to the fact that this lovely city is home to Baba Studios, creators of some of the best Tarot decks and books that I have ever seen.
This is a book that you just do not want to put down! It is all about the past, and how the energy from the past lives on in the present. It begins with a flashback to 1356, where we see mob mentality at its best. Fen’ka, a wise woman who lives in isolation at the edge of town, is dragged into the Old Town Square, accused of witchcraft, and burned at the stake. She doesn’t go easily … as she is burning, she brings down a curse on the town and its inhabitants.
From there, we are brought back to current times – 2002 in New York City. Magdalena, a young woman who works at a boring job with the University of Prague, is visiting the city. She is drawn to the signs for Tarot readings, and finally walks into a storefront to get a reading. The reader, an older woman, gives her a three card reading, showing the past (why she came to visit New York City), the present (what she hope to get from her trip), and the future (what she is looking for). Magdalena is warned that she will be offered help, but that the help may come at a price that is too great.
Back in Prague she discovers the ghost of Fen’ka, and agrees to help her get justice. Before this Magdalena and her friends have read the Tarot amongst themselves. But really don’t have a good understanding of it, or of other metaphysical/occult matters. As she delves deeper and deeper into the occult, Magdalena meets the spirit of Madame de Thebes, a fortuneteller that was murdered by the Nazis. In order to communicate with Madame Thebes, Magdalena has to break a spell that the Nazis placed on her. Under the bridge where she met the ghost of Madam Thebes Magdalena is told that she will need the help of Flauros and Halphas in getting justice for Fen’ka.
At the same time, in her 9-5 world Magdalena is given the opportunity to manage a set of conferences that her university is hosting on “Evil and Human Wickedness” and “Monsters and the Monstrous – Legends of Enduring Evil”. Little does she know that this is where she will meet the manifestations of Flauros and Halphas!
The chapters move between the 1300’s and 2002, exploring the legends of medieval Prague as well as modern day Prague. The characters are quite in depth, showing the cultural mores of the time, the social levels, the influence of the church and the guilds, and much more. What is presented is believable … at times very scary, but also very believable! Several of the chapters are named after Tarot cards, and accurately carry the energy of that card into the story.
This is a well researched book, from the point of view of medieval history, the Tarot itself, occult practices, the church, and the psyche behind what motivates people to act as they do. As we move deeper into the story, we realize that part of this is about Magdalena, and her search for power (and what price she is willing to pay for it).
The plot is well presented, up until the reincarnations of Flauros and Halphas present themselves to Magdalana. I still liked the storyline, but found it not as well presented, and possibly less plausible. However, I still recommend this book to those interested in the Tarot,Prague, medieval history, and just a good story in general.
I am looking forward to reading the next two books in this series! A evil force has been unleashed, and I want to see what it is going to do!
FROM BLUE INK REVIEWS FOR PART 2:
The exploration of various European myths and legends is the fuel that powers the storyline, and the understated use of supernatural characters (ghosts, trolls, etc.) throughout gives the novel a darkly magical but realistic tone.
This is a highly intelligent … saga that will appeal to fans of folkloric fantasy and historical fiction.
FROM BLUE INK REVIEWS FOR PART 1:
This supernatural suspense – which has intertwining storylines set in 14th century and modern day Prague – is the beginning volume of a trilogy that has the potential to be a genre-transcendent epic à la Deborah Harkness’ bestselling All Souls trilogy (A Discovery of Witches, et. al.).
Blending together history, folklore and occultism, the story revolves around Magdalena, a young Czech who works as the secretary for a professor of medieval Bohemian literature at a Prague university. During a vacation to New York City, she receives a fateful tarot reading that sets her on a dangerous path of self-discovery and, perhaps, self-destruction.
Back home in Prague, her continuing examination into the significance of her reading leads her to the historic Charles Bridge, where she meets the spirit of Fen’ka, an old woman accused of witchcraft back in 1356 and burned at the stake in the town square. Just before she died, she cursed the townspeople: “When this fire dies, let all their nightmares come to life.” Now, more than 600 years later, Fen’ka enlists Magdalena to help her gain justice. The task, however, is complicated – and could unleash all kinds of monstrosities.
Powered by lush storytelling, adeptly developed characters, and numerous
historical references…. the novel’s nebulous title – as well as its misleading cover art (it looks like a mainstream horror novel) – will make it more difficult for it to find its way into the hands of readers who would enjoy it most.
Ultimately, Wellspring is essentially the foundation for the presumed epic story to come – the calm before the storm. The tantalizing cliffhanger at novel’s end will have readers seeking out the sequel, entitled Rising.
FROM KIRKUS INDIE REVIEWS FOR PART 1:
This occult thriller explores the legends of medieval and modern Prague.
Magdalena, a bored administrative assistant in Prague, discovers the ghost of Fen’ka, an old woman burned alive as a witch in 1356, and agrees to help her pursue justice. Magdalena becomes more and more involved with the occult: She communicates with the spirit of Madame de Thebes, a fortuneteller murdered by the Nazis, and seeks out powerful demons to aid Fen’ka. Her story is interwoven with the novel’s strongest chapters, set in medieval Prague, which dramatize the effects of Fen’ka’s last dying curseon the city. Well-versed in 14th-century Prague, Morris draws heavily on folk legends to create a window into the lives of characters from various walks of life, including righteous priests, wealthy merchants and budding thieves. Each self-contained medieval chapter builds tension fairly well…. As a source of knowledge into occult practices—such as reading tarot cards, which provides the backdrop for many of its scenes—the novel sustains interest, although its momentum flags when trying to depict the mundane. However, the plot picks up toward the end, culminating with powerful demons let loose in Prague and the development of a compelling theme regarding Magdalena’s temptation to gain power and the price she’s willing to pay for it. Although the dialogue could use more subtlety, with characters often flatly stating what they believe, the plot and portrait of the 14th century are gripping enough to keep readers engaged.
An entertaining account of Czech folk and occult legends marred by uneven plot and dialogue.
FROM KIRKUS INDIE REVIEWS FOR PART 2:
An engaging, suspenseful occult novel set in historical and contemporary Prague.
In this sequel to Come Hell or High Water: Wellspring (2012),a group of professors specializing in folklore and magic attempts to prevent George, a powerful priest, and Elizabeth, an Irish vampire, from unleashing an evil that threatens to destroy all of Prague. Both George and Elizabeth were called to Prague by Magdalena, who summoned them to help fulfill the dying wishes of Fen’ka, a woman burned alive as a witch in the 14th century. Unbeknownst to Magdalena, Fen’ka seeks the return of Svetovit, a pagan god who will bring destruction to the modern world. Both sides scramble to find four magical items that protect Prague from evil: a sword, a staff, a pentacle and a chalice. The first half of the novel is a mystery in which the professors try to identify the magical items, while the second half becomes a suspenseful race as both sides try to obtain the items. The plot in this volume is more exciting than Wellspring and also more erotic, especially the scenes showing Elizabeth seducing men and then feeding on their blood. Chapters alternate between the main plot and loosely connected stories of the occult from medieval Prague that illustrate the effects of Fen’ka’s curse. Those historical episodes, which aren’t linked to the modern chapters, sometimes seem like parts of a different novel; however, they include evocative scenes featuring Czech slang and medieval social and religious practices, with characters, particularly women, using the occult to rebel against the rigid social bonds of the time, marriage especially. Carrying over from Wellspring, dialogue is still somewhat awkward, although it’s more naturalistic here. While the previous volume felt slow to develop, the sense of danger in this outing is palpable from the start, and the intensity, at least in the modern chapters, rarely lets up. Also included are several Czech legends, such as the story of Rabbi Judah ben Loew creating the Golem, which should appeal to readers with an interest in folklore.
A stark division of narratives, but each is absorbing, especially for history fans.
FROM BITTEN BY BOOKS FOR PART 1:
Magdalena was excited at the opportunity to have her cards read while visiting New York in 2002, but was pleasantly surprised when the reader used an old Bohemian form with which to lay out the cards. Feeling that the reading was exact, Magdalena returned home to Prague, where she looked for the right event that would set her reading in motion. She found it late one night walking by the river, which looked suspiciously like one of the scenes from the Tarot cards used during her reading. As she waited, a small boat rowed up to her, carrying two women; one was the troll, who guarded the river and bridge, and the other, named Fen’ka, had been burned as a witch in 1365, and she begged Magdalena’s help to clear her name.
Magdalena eagerly begins her search, asking her employer, a professor of folk tales, for help, and manages to gain a new opportunity in helping him set up a conference on evil and monsters. Believing that two of the conference participants would be helpful to her in clearing Fen’ka’s name, she remains very involved in the conference, just waiting for her aides to reveal themselves.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book! I loved the way the story shifted easily from 1365 to 2002, and I appreciated Magdalena’s determination to help Fen’ka clear her name. I could relate to Magdalena’s day-to-day life, and her desire to find something different and exciting rather than the same old daily routine. Do not let the length of the book scare you; it is a fascinating read. I can hardly wait for the remainder of the trilogy.
FROM BITTEN BY BOOKS FOR PART 2:
Magdalena is working closely with two conference participants in order to clear the name of Fen’ka, a woman who, in 1356, was burned at the stake for being a witch. Magdalena believes George and Elizabeth are here to help her with her quest, and seems to have fallen completely under George’s spell. Neither George nor Elizabeth are what they appear to be, and Magdalena is placed in increasingly difficult situations in order to locate the four artifacts of Prague before another group of conference participants do — those who are trying to save Prague from the curses Fen’ka delivered from the stake.
The conferences on Monsters and Evil are going well, and the eight participants who have banded together to find the artifacts are finding danger at every turn, once they learn that their efforts are being thwarted by George, a Jesuit priest with a desire for dark power, and Elizabeth, a Deargh-due, an Irish vampire type who also has magical powers.
This second book in the trilogy definitely holds attention as Magdalena continues her search to clear Fen’ka’s name. I particularly enjoyed the chapters set in 1356 and 1357 that show some of Fen’ka’s curses coming back on the people of Prague. The eight conference participants that are working together are strong in knowledge on folklore, but must dig deeply within themselves to find the courage needed to find the sacred artifacts before Magdalena and her companions. This is definitely not a stand-alone book; they must be read in order so they can be fully understood. I can hardly wait for the final book to come out so I can have the complete story of Magdalena and Fen’ka’s curse.
On Part 2 from THE WORLD OF TAROT:
“Part 2: Rising” is the second book in a paranormal trilogy by Stephen Morris. In Part 1: Well Spring, we met Magdalena, a secretary at Charles University in Prague. Through a strange set of circumstances she ends up helping Fen’ka, a wise woman who was lynched by a mob for witchcraft in 1356. With her dying breath Fen’ka cursed the city and its people. In searching for help for Fen’ka, Magdalena brings two very dangerous people to Prague: Elizabeth, a beautiful Irish mythologist who is in actuality the Dearg-due (an Irish vampire figure that does not have to play by the same rules as the vampires that we all know and love!), and George. a New York based Jesuit priest who is also head of a coven. What Magdalena does not realize is that George and Elizabeth are set on destroying the city of Prague!
Amazing things happen in this book! Magdalena takes something of a back seat, while her best friend, Victoria, begins to work with a group of professors at the conference that Charles University is hosting on folklore, myths, and monsters. The two groups – Victoria and her professor allies, and Magdalena, Elizabeth, and George – face off against each other to find the four magical tools that protect Prague (a Chalice, Sword, Staff, and Pentacle).
Morris does an excellent job of presenting Prague, its people and its mythology. He also does a nice job with presenting actual ritual, and with using the energy of the Tarot in some of his chapter titles. (My one little issue here is the presentation of the Tarot Court Cards. While they are a part of the Minor Arcana, they are the people cards, and should be honored as such.)
The storyline and characters are very well presented. I am looking forward to reading Part 3!