Traveling Light by Lloyd Meeker

Rating: 8/10 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 
Title: Traveling Light
Author: Lloyd Meeker
Genre: Contemporary, spiritual, gay fiction
URL: MLR Press
Price: US $7.99/14.99
Other Information/warnings: Violence, horror
Summary [from the publisher]:
Ian McCandless is a hospice nurse, training to become a shaman. When his mentor orders him to make peace with his estranged family, Ian reluctantly agrees, anticipating just another conflict-filled visit. On their way from the airport Ian’s older brother Will interrupts a convenience store robbery and is shot, dying in Ian’s arms and calling to him for vengeance.

Ian uses his shamanic abilities to track down the killer, but his quest soon turns into a hunt for revenge—forbidden to any shaman. Ian’s pursuit jeopardizes his relationship with the spirit world, endangers the lives of those he loves and threatens to banish him from the only path that gives his life meaning.

My review:
I very nearly didn’t review this book because Mr Meeker wrote to me to ask if I would like to read it, describing it as “romantic, but not a clear-cut m/m romance; more of a cross-genre shamanic initiation adventure, a love story that bridges the material and spirit worlds, a mystical quest for growth with an underlying mystery.” Being a rabid atheist and skeptic, and allergic to spiritism and woowoo, this summary turned me off immediately. It was only when by chance I saw the summary that MLR Press issued, that my interest was piqued. I’m glad I changed my mind.

But ultimately, the author described his story more accurately, because this is only incidentally about finding a murderer using shamanic abilities. So if you’re looking for a police procedural or a detective story, this is certainly not for you. Nor is it an m/m romance, because the romantic element are also somewhat incidental (and confusing), there is no explicit sexual content, and the ending is definitely only a Happily For Now, if it’s a Happily for anything. It’s important not to expect more than this book is offering.

I had to set aside huge obstacles to my suspension of disbelief. Not only is it a story about beliefs I profoundly do not share or can even accept, it also sits in an uncomfortable tradition of the appropriation of indigenous cultures by the colonising peoples. The use of  terms such as  ‘shaman’ and ‘two-spirit’ honestly made me squirm, and I personally had to force myself to keep reading. I mention this because I’m perhaps especially sensitive and sensitised on these issues because of the many racefails over the last few years by well meaning authors. In the end, because of the exceptional coherency of the spirit world and its internal, consistent rules and morality, I could treat this story rather like one of my own fantasy worlds or a work of science fiction, and enjoy the interaction of the characters with that spirit world. A world that I don’t believe exists, but which the author made credible in the confines of this story.

Enough about me. Let’s talk about the bad things, then the good things. Ian is surprisingly flat as a main character – the entire novel suffers from ‘tell not show’ and excessive exposition through dialogue, and while that is less of an issue than it might be because the world-building is so fascinating, it really affects the development of our protagonist. He’s intensely self-absorbed, contradictory and stubborn, and other characters appear mainly for him to demonstrate his abilities. When his brother is killed, we are told all about Ian’s grief, but Will’s widow and children – surely even more bereft than Ian – don’t appear at all in the story, or hardly in Ian’s thoughts. We don’t meet any of Ian’s family other than Will, in fact, which only contributes to the self-centered portrait.

However, Ian is just one of a large cast, and that cast is the saving of the book. The vividness that Ian lacks is found in his  patients, Mrs Halliday, and the bitchy, frightened, angry Michael dying of AIDS. They spring to life, even if they disappear from the story for large periods of time, only to be summoned to again illustrate Ian’s wonderful abilities. Ian’s putative boyfriend, Sam, and his sister, Ellie, are also strongly written, though Sam’s extreme fear and disgust with what Ian does is hard to swallow given the immense importance spirits and demons play in Chinese thought and traditional beliefs. Ta-Kuat, another saintly shaman from the distant past whom Ian meets on the spirit plane,  is also a cypher (and I didn’t ultimately give a damn about him),  but Ian’s teacher, Ang, leaps off the page, angry and spare and dour and stern. It’s as if the author’s determination to present shamanism as favourably as possible has drained his shamans of life and vivacity, but that life has been poured into the other, less important characters.

The plot was, despite the spiritual angle,  gripping, although the prologue nearly killed the novel dead before it started, and there was an awkward double retelling of an encounter between Ian and Ta-Kuat which could have been cut. The preponderance of dialogue slows the story down too much at times but there’s usually enough going on to retain interest. I suspect reader patience for the amount of dialogue will vary tremendously.

The writing could have been tighter. The editing definitely needed to be a lot better both on content and line editing – the punctuation was eccentric to say the least, and irritating, and there were also actual word errors like ‘discrete’ for ‘discreet’. Given the price MLR charges for books, they need to lift their game considerably.

In the end, the world-building is what carries the reader along here, and the moral dilemma Ian faces is far from simple. The many people and spirit guides he encounters on his journey towards enlightment and resolution of his pain are mostly fascinating, and it’s not at all clear which choices he will or should make at any point. It entertained me, and left me thinking about the spirit plane as described. It didn’t convert me or lessen my distaste for real world mysticism, but then I didn’t read it with the intention that it should, nor does it attempt to preach.

I recommend Traveling Light as a decent read, so long as you know what to expect and don’t ask for more than it offers.