Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand

This is a gloriously crazy mix of religion, anthropology, and archaeology bundled up in a supernatural thriller. It’s mad but I loved it. Sweeney is out of her depth at the University of the Archangels and St. John the Divine. It’s an old campus with gothic architecture and an arcane atmosphere. As she tries to settle in, Sweeney catches a glimpse of something almost supernatural about the place.The other students seem destined to be here, born to some greater purpose than an university degree. Sweeney feels too normal to fit in at first,  but quickly bonds with two fellow students, Oliver and Angelica. Oliver is a fey, dissolute young man, teetering on the brink of sanity. Him and Sweeney spend their first term stoned and drunk, dancing and talking. They are connected, but not together. Oliver is in demand from Angelica, a beautiful force of nature. The three of them make a compelling but disjointed trio. 

The quirks of their relationship are nothing compared to the strange goings on at the university. It’s run by a powerful and ancient sect, the Benandanti or good men. They are patiently waiting for a sign. As self-proclaimed keepers of, well, all the secrets of humanity really, they protect the status quo. When their supremacy is challenged by the reappearance of Magda Kurta, archaeologist and one time initiate of the Benandanti herself, events take a dark turn. Angelica and Sweeney are witness to an horrific act, but not before Magda has bequeathed a sacred necklace to Angelica. This lunula is the totem of a goddess cult, even more ancient than the Benandanti, perhaps as old as humanity. Angelica’s behaviour  becomes odder as she grows more beautiful and bewitching. At a weekend retreat organised by the college her actions seem out of control, shocking, and they have awful consequences.

Sweeney is brutally ripped away from Oliver and Angelica, and lives a different life completely. One that’s quieter and much more sedate than the brief wild time at the Divine. She keeps in touch with one friend from that time, infrequently, and although not exactly happy she’s doing OK. However, she is thrown right back into the chaos as it becomes clear that people are dying and Angelica is doing some serious work energising a huge following for her goddess cult. 

The book moves between different stories, so we find out more about the work of the Benandanti, what the students are up to, Magda Kurtz’s extraordinary excavation work, Angelica’s cult. It’s split into two parts, both of which build up to a climactic finale. It is quite violent at times; the goddess cult requires human sacrifices. Initially I wasn’t sure whether it was pitched at teens or adults, but it is definitely an adult book despite the campus setting in the first part of the book. I loved all the archaeology and anthropology included, the author has drawn on some good research. I also like how she’s adapted the Benandanti; there really were a religious group, from Italy, in the early modern period. The book cleverly pulls you between the two sides, as there is no clear good versus evil. At times both seem reasonable, at times they both seem to use unconscionable methods. If you don’t mind your story with a helping of blood and nudity then this might be one for you. 

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