3 out of 4 stars
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Louisiana Voodoo is a complex religion rich in tradition, folktales, and connections to its African diasporic roots. For non-practitioners, it is everything from innocent stories and superstitions to dangerously dark magic. But what happens when one of these outsiders discovers that Voodoo is far different from what European-descended Americans imagine? What if he/she not only learns that it is real but is thrust head-first into the world of shadows and spiritual battles lying just beyond the average man’s reach? Can he/she handle the burden? Accept it as reality? Or will he/she collapse under such pressure? Such is the premise for the novella Otherside by Aaron Dennis.
When he first arrived in New Orleans, he was just another tourist there to celebrate his friend’s—J’s—most recent success in real estate. All either of them had planned to do was soak in the scenery and partake in all the booze, drugs, and sex that the city has to offer. Then one night, a fateful alcohol run puts one of the men on a very different path, one from which he may never return. While J cozies up with prostitutes in their cheap motel room, his friend stumbles drunk through the streets of New Orleans, witnesses a murder, and is reborn as the Shadowman called Adja.
Little does Adja know, this is only the beginning of the wild ride on which he is about to embark and the new life which the universe has thrust upon him. From facing down Snake and preventing the rise of a ghost spirit to unbinding Bear and entering a pact with Seno-wah, Adja must enter a world of adventure and spirituality which he could have never imagined—and for which he is entirely unprepared. Will Adja keep up with the constant demands that the Otherside puts on Shadowmen and Shadowfemme? Or will his ignorance of the spirit world prove to be his downfall?
Before discussing my thoughts on the book, I must provide the warning that I am not an expert on Louisiana Voodoo or Louisiana French Creole culture. For that reason, I cannot say whether or not Dennis’s adaptations of the folktales and depictions of the people can be considered accurate or politically correct. My review is based on the merits of the novella alone, and I’ll leave it up to my fellow readers to make up their minds on these other aspects.
In one prologue and four story-like chapters, Aaron Dennis weaves an entertaining tale of magic, nature, uncertainty, and the clash of tradition versus modernity. While Otherside is to be read as one complete novella, each chapter is a complete short story by itself, creating more of a novella-in-stories feel than just a singular, overarching plot like today’s readers have become accustomed to seeing. This structure makes it easy to read a chapter at a time and pick the book back up later without getting lost or having to do any rereading, a fact which I am grateful for as my schedule does not allow me enough time to read many pages at once. This novella-in-stories format also mimics the feel of a collection of folktales, one of the many ways in which Dennis sucks the readers into the world of the Otherside. Still, these stories are intimately connected and take place one immediately after the other, so it is best to read them as closely together as possible.
Along with the novella-in-stories feel, Dennis’s simple writing style and straightforward plots hearken back to the oral storytelling which is the basis for Voodoo and other similar religions and mythologies. To me, this point is both the book’s greatest strength and worst weakness. On the one hand, this style makes the book an easy and quick read while maintaining the readers’ attention. It also gives a more authentic feel which helps to draw readers into the Otherside. On the other hand, this technique also leaves much to be desired in terms of depth of character and plot. The characters are entertaining and each has his/her own unique personality, but they never feel like real people, either, just characters from a folktale. The plot and subplots are also captivating in that they have action and an element of mystery to them. Still, there is only minimal push-back on the main character’s attempts to resolve the problems—mostly from the stubbornness or coy attitudes of other characters—and that lessens the possible tension greatly. This simplicity encapsulates the spirit of oral tradition, but for readers who need more complex character and plot development, it leaves much to be desired.
Unfortunately, I did find numerous proofreading errors in my copy. The most persistent mistakes involve misplaced commas and the use of commas in place of question marks in the dialogue. However, the novella also contains such mistakes as using “futility” for “futilely”, “draws” for “drawers”, and “then” for “than”. The comma issue can be a bit tricky since the rules are obscure and often vary, but the other mistakes should have been caught by an editor. The errors are not so overwhelming that they should turn potential readers away, but they are noticeable and warrant another round of proofreading/editing.
Overall, I give Otherside by Aaron Dennis 3 out of 4 stars. The stories are fascinating and Dennis’s ability to mimic oral storytelling in printed form captured my attention from the start. I am also impressed by his ability to build upon the folktales of Voodoo and put them in a more modern context, although that also means that I wish there had been more stories than just the four presented here. Regardless, I think that the storyteller style of writing can be disappointing for those looking to experience something deep and meaningful. That on top of the proofreading errors prevents me from providing this book with the highest ranking, but Otherside did entertain me and spark my imagination, so I cannot really say that it’s worth less than three stars.
If you are a fan TV shows like Supernatural and just want a quick, fun, and funny read, I highly recommend Otherside by Aaron Dennis. In fact, any adult with a fondness for speculative fiction could get some enjoyment out of this approximately 180-page book. (I must emphasize it is for adults because sex, drugs, alcohol, and violence all make an appearance in these stories, albeit never too graphically.) However, if you are not a fantasy or supernatural fiction fan and/or prefer the stories you read to have more meat on their bones, you might want to pass on this one.
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