Wednesday, March 8, 2017

2016 Esoteric Book of the Year

My apologies for this late year-end review. I have been involved with a number of time consuming pursuits. Between projects and travel I have had little time to write book reviews as frequently as I would like.

*A note on how books are judged.

Books are judged by the following criteria: binding, materials, design, talismanic intent & method of consecration (if applicable), artwork/layout, and editorial rigor. Books are chosen from those released and delivered (in full) within the year 2016 (even though they may have a 2015 publication date). This is because books tend to encounter publishing delays. It is especially common in esoteric publishing for a number or reasons (including some of high strangeness). For example, a 2014 book may not actually be available until 2016 in some cases. Books will not be judged by their topic, theme, or content (other than grammar). This may sound strange, but I feel it is unfair and pointless to compare or make value judgments between different magical paths or traditions (like comparing apples to oranges). While I do my best, I am not qualified to judge and assess every magical system the world has to offer; I very much doubt such a person exists. Therefore, books will be judged by their craftsmanship, editorial competence, creativity, talismanic nature, and beauty only.

In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the publication of deluxe esoteric books. This is certainly good news to publishers, readers, and collectors; however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with such high output. Frankly, there is not enough time for any individual to read and evaluate every deluxe esoteric book published in a given year. A few years ago it was possible, but no longer. This is a good "problem" to have. Consequently, some very important and noteworthy books may end up falling through the cracks.

Furthermore, with the sheer number of titles released annually I have to be more selective by choosing only topics I find personally interesting such as (but not limited to): witchcraft, folk-magic, Hermeticism, demonology, and reprints of historic grimoires. I am less interested in contemporary magical diaries, occult manifestos, and New Age cookbooks. Therefore I apologize in advance to publishers and authors of books I may have overlooked. To help remedy this, and give credit where credit is due, I invite my readers to post titles of deserving books (from 2016) that may have been overlooked in the comments section of this post.

And now, Balkan's Arcane Bindings' pick for the English language 2016 Esoteric Book of the Year.

The Golden Talisman Award for 2016 Esoteric Book of the Year goes to....

Ifá: A Forest of Mystery by Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold (Fine Edition). Published by Scarlet Imprint. Black & white illustrations by Childerico.  Octavo. 400 pages. Limited to 64 copies.

Ifá: A Forest of Mystery is Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold's fourth book of Afro-Caribbean magic published by Scarlet Imprint. It was preceded by Palo Mayombe: The Garden of Blood and Bones, Exu & the Quimbanda of Night and Fire, and Pomba Gira and the Quimbanda of Mbumba Nzila. The book explores the Yoruban Ifá tradition, and in particular, its primary divination practices. Prior to reading this book I had almost zero knowledge of the Ifá tradition, yet Mr. Frisvold made it easy for me to comprehend the basic tenets and cosmology of the system. The author strikes a welcome balance by making the work comprehensible for the novice (like me) and also providing enough depth and mystery to keep the interest of readers already familiar with the system. The dramatic artwork by Childerico (reminiscent of woodcuts, though far more detailed) creates a phantasmal atmosphere filled with primal power and laden with symbolic meaning -- 18 images virtually crackling with energy.

Like all the rest of the Frisvold/Scarlet Imprint collaborations, the fine edition of, Ifá: A Forest of Mystery is truly something to behold. Its luxurious binding is bound in full hand-grained morocco. The publisher (and probably the tannery) refers to the color as "rust", but I think chestnut would be more accurate. The leather is soft with a smooth tight grain and has a very pleasant scent -- what can only describe as malty.

This is a hefty book (2 inches thick) with very heavy beveled boards. As far as its construction goes, it is 'built like a tank'. Simply outstanding. I am sure it will outlast everyone reading this review. The cover is breathtaking -- an image of Orúnmila, the god of knowledge, blocked in gold. He holds the sacred palm tree nuts (ikin) used for divination. Custom endpapers from Victoria Hall are marbled with a striking weave pattern in shades of green and red. Quite unusual. The book's edges are gilded as well. There might be more gold in this book than some people's wedding rings. It is finished off with gold head/tail bands and a gold-colored silk ribbon bookmark. A brown suede slipcase is provided for protection. The work concludes with a glossary, bibliography, and index. Scarlet Imprint has shown once again why they are one of the leaders in fine bindings, and not just in esoterica, but among all publishers.

In second place the Silver Talisman Award goes too...

Azoëtia by Andrew Chumbley (Third Edition - Special Edition). Published by Xoanon Limited. Illustrated in black and white by the author. Octavo. 394 pages. Limited to 22 copies.

Azoëtia was ranked a very close second in my poll for the "Most Important Esoteric Book of the 20th Century" here. It was surpassed (by only 1%, mind you) by Crowley's Magick: Liber ABA (Book Four). Azoëtia is the foundation text of the Sabbatic Witchcraft tradition. A true modern grimoire, it contains a series of formulae, rites, conjurations, and instructions unique to the Sabbatic Witchcraft tradition. The work is illustrated throughout with Mr. Chumbley's own fascinating and complex pen/ink psychography. A glossary is included to familiarize the reader with potentially unfamiliar terms.

Azoëtia's impact on contemporary witchcraft traditions is considerable, but its influence extends far beyond witchcraft traditions in ways one might not expect. I believe Azoëtia's Second Edition (the "Sethos" Edition) was instrumental in making talismanic publishing what it is today. Prior to its publication, 20th century occult books rarely commanded high prices, with the exception of first edition or signed books by Crowley or A.O. Spare. That all changed with Mr. Chumbley and his publisher, Xoanon. Demand and buzz had been building after the first edition paperback of Azoëtia (1992) became scarce. In 2002 it was reprinted as a deluxe hardback. Not only was Azoëtia beautifully bound, but it was also very limited and in high demand. It sold out in a matter of months. Chumbley also created handmade talismans to accompany some of his works. This changed everything. Suddenly books were not simple vessels for magical material, they were themselves magical -- a very old idea reintroduced into the modern market. It was also a rejection of the disposable/paperback culture many of us had grown up with. Books began to look and feel magical again. Now, with the new 3rd Edition, the bar has been raised even higher.

The Special Edition of Azoëtia is bound in full cream-colored alum-tawed goat (whitened with alum salts). Alum-tawed skins are a time-honored material in bookbinding dating all the way back to the 12th century. I feel this is a perfect choice for binding material for Azoëtia, as the skin is both elegant and rustic -- understated and rugged -- perfectly reflecting the raw and direct nature of the work. The natural irregularities and blemishes of the goatskin echo the unique and variable challenges the reader will encounter within the Sabbatic current. Furthermore, the goatskin has a marvelous texture with a very fine "grip" -- semi-rough when stroked against the grain, like the tongue of a cat.

The cover is one of Mr. Chumbley's figurative pieces blocked in 22 karat gold. It is a component of an interior image, (Fig. 14 Erotocrasis: The Arch of Drewary O'er the Sigillick Tree of Earthen Albion). The book's title is emblazoned on the spine in matching gold and bordered by four raised bands, each outlined in gold. Head/tail bands, marbled endpapers, and ribbon bookmark are all scarlet red, a striking contrast against the pallid exterior. Opening the book is like opening up a living creature -- a marbled fleshy interior splashed with crimson.

Each copy of the Special Edition comes with a hand-written talisman, "bearing the sign of one of the twenty-two Sacred Letters of the Azoëtic continuum". For privacy reasons I have digitally removed the letter from the talisman in the photo. Each of the 22 "Holy Letters" found within Azoëtia has a specific energy signature and distinctive correspondences. Of all the 22 letters, the one I received was the most personal and appropriate for me. It was uncanny.

Later, in a conversation with the publisher, he explained to me that individual letters were specifically chosen for each of the 22 recipients. It impressed me beyond words that a publisher would take such care, time, and consideration to make sure that each copy arrived into the hands for which it was destined. This, ladies and gentlemen, was a truly magical process. It is this sort of personalized attention to detail that sets the small press (and specifically talismanic publishing) apart from mass-market publishers. This is not just a sales process; it is a magical working.

In third place, the Bronze Talisman Award goes to...

The Devil's Plantation: East Anglian Lore, Witchcraft & Folk-Magic
by Nigel Pearson (Fine Edition). Published by Troy Books. Illustrated in black & white by Gemma Gary. Black & white photographic plates. Octavo. 272 pages. Limited to 15 copies.

The Devil's Plantation is a fascinating collection of traditional witchcraft beliefs and lore from East Anglia. Mr. Pearson takes the reader on a journey covering a number of topics specific to the region: spirits of the landscape -- or genius loci (East Anglia's unique psychogeography), encounters with folkloric creatures, historic and notable witches and cunning-folk, flora/fauna/mineral lore, and witchcraft traditions (charms, cures, and curses). A bibliography and index are also included.

The title is an homage to an infamous "black book" of the same title written by a legendary Cambridgeshire witch, and also refers to cursed parcels of land believed to belong to the Devil, also known as a "Devil's Acre", "Devil's Hopyard", "Devil's Backbone" or "Devil's Den". Places ascribed with devil-names are of great interest to me. Poet J.G. Whittier wrote a poem about unhallowed grounds and accursed acreages titled, "The Devil's Den":
'Tis said that this cave is an evil place
The chosen haunt of a fallen race
That the midnight traveller oft hath seen
A red flame tremble its jaws between,
And lighten and quiver the boughs among,
Like the fiery play of a serpent's tongue;
That sounds of fear from its chambers swell
The ghostly gibber, the fiendish yell;
That bodiless hands at its entrance wave,
And hence they have named it The Demon's Cave.
* * *
Yet is there something to fancy dear
In this silent cave and its lingering fear,
Something which tells of another age,
Of the wizard's wand, and the Sybil's page,
Of the fairy ring and the haunted glen,
And the restless phantoms of murdered men:
The grandame's tale, and the nurse's song
The dreams of childhood remembered long;
And I love even now to list the tale
Of the Demon's Cave, and its haunted vale."

The Devil's Plantation is appropriately bound in full black goatskin. The goatskin has a medium grain with a faintly oily texture. Folklore speaks of certain books of maleficia that "sweat", indicating that the spirits bound within are in constant torment. Perhaps this is one. What makes this binding really stand out is an inlaid shield panel in deep blue leather with a blind embossed border. The shield is blocked in silver with a toad skeleton device and three crowns. The spine has five raised bands and a matching blue leather label, also blocked in silver. Head/tail bands and silk bookmark are in a matching shade of blue. Hand-marbled endpapers in grey, teal, and bronze are equally bewitching (pardon the pun), and look like the oily surface of a bubbling cauldron -- an amusing choice. The Devil's Plantation comes housed in a black buckram slipcase blind embossed with a shield device.

The book contains fifteen evocative pen/ink illustrations by Gemma Gary in her distinctive stipple-style (this has become a welcome trademark feature of Troy Books' titles), and twenty five black & white photographic plates. As somewhat of a companion book to The Devil's Plantation, Troy Books has recently released a new and revised edition of Nigel Pearson's earlier work, Treading the Mill: Workings in Traditional Witchcraft. Mr. Pearson's work is a tremendous contribution to the study of British folk magic.

2016 Honorable Mentions

  • The Triangular Book of St. Germain deciphered and translated by Nick Koss (Special Edition). Published by Ouroboros Press. Printed in full color. English and French text. Small triangular format (6 1/2" x  6"). 48 pages. Comes with a sterling silver talisman and marbled slipcase. Limited to 26 copies. 

  • Þursakyngi - Loki by Ekortu. (Deluxe Edition), published by IXAXAAR. Bound directly to goat leather creating a unique protective envelope with tied leather closures. Comes with a birch bark talisman created by the author. 270 pages. Octavo. Limited to 49 copies.

  • The British Book of Spells and Charms by Graham King (Fine Edition). Published by Troy Books. 296 pages. Blind embossed buckram slipcase. Duodecimo. Limited to 20 copies. 

  • Claves Regni by Nikolai Saunders. Published by Fall of Man. 542 pages. Octavo. Bound in Italian green moire silk and gold gilt. Faux-crocodile skin slipcase. Limited to 96 copies.

Moving into 2017:

My hope is to get back to writing semi-regular book reviews, that is, if life will ever calm down enough to permit it. I am also considering including a occasional interviews with authors and publishers to mix things up a bit. 

Have a great year, dear readers.

B. Balkan

Read about past years' winners:


  1. Just found your blog and your reviews are great! Too bad you apparently dropped it... did you continue elsewhere?

  2. Truly amazing, when will you update?

  3. Over the years I've learnt a lot about the talismanic book and their bindings etc via this blog,so it's sad to miss 2018/19 and soon 2020. I shall keep my fingers crossed for a reawakening of the great 'Balkan's Arcane Bindings'.