The first Carolina Daemonic novel, Confederate Shadows, is one of the most esoteric and layered books I have ever read. There is so much going on in this story it is going to be hard to adequately break it down, but I feel I must, because this is a book you definitely don’t want to miss.
Firstly, I’m going to get a few sundry items out of the way. If you buy the paperback of this, the formatting is slightly weird. There are no page numbers, no text justification, and the margins are way, way too big. Personally, this kind of stuff doesn’t bother me, but I know some people will find it a bit hard on the eyes. I would urge you in the strongest possible terms to overlook this minor niggle, however, and see the gem that this book truly is. You see, Confederate Shadows confirms something that I had begun to suspect when reading Barr’s other novel Serpent King:
Brian Barr is an actual genius.
This word has a tendency to be overused now, and wheeled out for any hack who can string a sentence together, but Barr is the real deal. He’s doing things with fiction that no one else is. I should also qualify that genius does not equate to perfectly chiseled (and often boring) prose. In fact, it is precisely the reverse. To use an appropriately occult term, it is a state of “Ipsissimus”, of complete and realised selfhood. Confederate Shadows is a work of genius because it is absolutely and unashamedly what it is, traditional rules of storytelling or editing be damned. It’s written with ferocious passion and energy. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the basics.
Confederate Shadows is perhaps best described as an occult, alternative history novel set in the year 2020 (a year of ill-omen both in reality and in the novel, as it happens). In this alternative timeline, the South won the American Civil War(and the States has become known as the Confederacy), the British Empire was never toppled (and is called Victoria), and China retained its Emperor, having never become a communist nation. Slavery was abolished, but in the 20thcentury not the 19th, and racism and political tensions abound.
I remarked on Barr’s world-building skills in my review of Serpent King, but here it is perhaps even more impressive. Barr constructs a universe that is at once strange and alien but also strikingly similar to our own. Using his alt-reality, Barr is able to make commentary on a variety of contemporary concerns from racial discrimination in the workplace, to industrialisation (in Barr’s alt-universe, steampunk technology has revolutionised the world, and the only reason slavery was abolished was because slaves were no longer needed with the implementation of robot workers), corporate greed, monopoly, and the weaponisation of race- and class-divide for political and corporate gain. The richness of texture in this universe is incredible, and Barr does not shy away from tackling some of the most complex philosophical issues of our time, often via the mouthpiece of his unusual and fascinating protagonist Titus Hemsley.
Titus is a mesmerising focal character. He possesses incredible analytical powers. He is at once a man of science, a high-level robotics engineer, but also interested in the occult and the darker side of magick. Others perceive him as “uppity” or arrogant, and we can see from his speech patterns how educated he is. He’s black, bisexual, and perceives the world through a unique lens. What’s fascinating about Titus is how he doesn’t subscribe to the traditional divides. He’s little interested in blaming white people for the evils of the world, because he understands the truth: that all people, black, white, Asian, whatever, are pawns being used in a terrible political and corporate game, and that by fuelling these hatreds, the corporates are getting closer to delivering their coup de grace on human freedom. The prescience of this novel is frankly frightening considering it was written before 2016.
But Barr never falls into the trap of preaching one philosophy. In fact, he displays a Shakespearean capacity for representing multiple conflicting viewpoints, and without resorting to proposing a definitive “right” way. In this vein, we also meet Titus’ old colleague (we’ll stick with that descriptor to avoid spoilers): Reuben. Reuben doesn’t agree with Titus’ view at all, brutally describing him as an “apologist”. As we follow Reuben’s story, we begin to develop a great sympathy for Reuben’s plight, and see that he also has valid reasons of thinking the way he does.
We also follow the intriguing courtesan Wei, sent by the Emperor of China as a “gift” to the president of a large American conglomerate that is currently at the centre of a racial controversy. Wei’s perspective is a complete shift of gear, and while it would be easy to see her as a mere plot device to give us a window into the events transpiring inside this conglomerate, she ends up on one of the most interesting character arcs in the entire story. When writing about such sweeping political and theological issues, as Barr is, it can be easy to lose the characters, the human individuals at the heart of it all, but the brilliance of Barr’s work is that this is precisely his point.
Barr is also not afraid to give us insight into the villains of this story, in particular the eugenics advocate Tobias. It would be so easy to reduce Tobias to a caricature of evil. He is Titus’ rival, from university, and the two share an intriguing backstory that becomes deeper than you could possibly imagine, including a shared propensity for magic. They now work for rival robotics corporations and represent entirely different viewpoints. But whilst Barr certainly shows us what a piece of shit Tobias is, he never makes him beyond sympathy. In fact, there is one tender flashback scene in which we feel tremendously sorry for how pathetic, lost, and repressed Tobias truly is. We yearn for him to make different choices, knowing he cannot.
This introduces another key theme of Confederate Shadows, which is repression, sexuality, and magick and how they all interrelate. The opening scene of the book – a masterpiece of character-writing – puts us in Titus’ headspace as he searches a bar called the Thirsty Rooster for some easy sex. He’s looking at both the women and the men with opportunity in mind, and we sense that Titus is a bit of a sexual animal despite his intellectual prowess. Later in the book, we meet another character, whom I won’t name for fear of spoilers, who expounds that the perfected or “übermencsh” human being is one who has been robbed of the sexual impetus (and organ), because it diverts and distracts energy.
Sex and magic (or magick) have always been interlinked. Barr even goes so far as to mention the sacral chakra (the second chakra that sits just below the belly button, at the dantien, and glows with orange light). This chakra is concerned with both the sexual and creative impulses, and throughout history it’s evident that most creative powerhouses also had ravenous sexual appetite. There is some debate between different magical schools of thought, however, as to whether the control and suppression of sexual drive is a boon or drawback for the magical practitioner, and Barr also addresses this occult debate, exploring whether sexuality is a healthy and human balance to the higher potency of magic and idealism – or a hindrance. Titus embodies this balance, in many ways, though he also recognises that his lack of focus has been a bane to him in the past.
In some ways, the entire novel might be construed as an exploration of the role of sex in human endeavour: we open with Titus looking for sexual opportunity, Titus’s backstory is innately tied up in sex and shame, his rivalry with Tobias is further illustrated by their differing sexuality; many of the villains have problematic and repressive attitudes towards sex, and Wei, the heroic courtesan, represents another mode of transactional (and passive) sex, and the toll it takes on the human psyche. Further symbolism abounds in that her name may be a reference to the philosophy of Wu Wei, popularised in the West by Alan Watts, which advocates “non-volitional action”, or rather, achieving through submission to the cycles of the universe. It’s also a homonym for the English word “Way”, which has occult and spiritual meanings. This is just a taste of the depth to be found in this book.
And while we’re speaking of occultism, Barr displays very deep knowledge of both the mystical Qabalah (sometimes variously written Kabbalah or Kabala) and other magical systems, including the Qliphothic magic of the Reverse Tree. One need not understand these systems to enjoy the story, but it is refreshing to read a book that is grounded in very real magical (or magickal) traditions; it gives Confederate Shadows and its alternative history just that bit of edge.
It has been said of the bizarro author Carlton Mellick III that “Every Mellick novel is packed with more wildly original concepts than you could find in the current top ten New York Times bestsellers put together” (VERBICIDE) and I think the same is true of Barr. Just when you think Confederate Shadows has revealed its biggest secrets, it pulls the rug out again; just when you think you’ve seen the weirdest thing it has to offer, it shows you something stranger; just when you think all the characters are on the table, it introduces a new player. For fantasy and sci-fi junkies like myself, this book is like a tapestry of top-tier concepts that are somehow seamlessly sewn together, from steampunk robotics totrans-human body augmentation to Nigerian magic cults to Egyptian necromancy and even genetic modification reminiscent of Warhammer 40,000’s sexless Space Marine warriors (I have no idea if Barr is familiar with this universe, but interesting parallels abound – perhaps it’s more the root Nietzschean philosophy he’s drawing from?).
Confederate Shadows is not a conventional novel. Barr doesn’t care about sticking to one genre, nor does he care about his reader’s sensitivity – he’s a horror writer at heart, I think – so get ready to see some truly fucked up Barker-levelshit. There are many unsettling concepts in this novel (not just gore, but more deeply disturbing due to their religious, political, or moral implications) that I can’t spoil. One of the most impressive things about Confederate Shadows, however, is that unlike many books dealing with weighty political and ethical themes, Barr does not enforce an artificial morality upon the narrative (thus reducing the story to an allegory at best and a preaching fable at worst). Sometimes good people with the best intentions die suddenly and violently and the abhorrent misogynists survive. Bad things happen to women, men, straight, gay, black, and white people without any deference to some kind of political agenda. Barr isn’t holding your hand, he’s holding up a mirror.
Brian Barr is one of the weirdest and I think most important writers alive today. He is almost certainly the most underrated writer I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. So please, I beg of you, go and buy his book. Or even better: buy all of them. I’ll certainly be picking up book 2 of Carolina Daemonic: Rebel Hell. Barr is the voice of one calling in the desert; we need to start listening.