Review: Pieces of Eight and the Unwriteable Fourth Book

The other night my husband made an amazing pasta sauce for dinner. It was very richly flavored, starting with a mirepoix and including roast chicken meat, pancetta cubes, green olives, artichoke hearts, and tomato sauce and paste. It was superb and very flavorful, but when I tasted it there was a hole in the middle of the flavor.

"Ah," he said, "needs salt." I wouldn't have thought that, as it wasn't at all bland, but he was right. A pinch of salt and the flavor was whole again. Of course he is the chef in our family. This got me to thinking about the flavor profiles of mixed dishes like these (soups, stews, casseroles). Herbs and spices and acid flavors, like lemon, are the top notes. Umami like mushrooms, tomatoes, and the delicious results of the Maillard reaction are the deep base flavors. Vegetables -- with their sweet and bitter flavors -- come in from the sides to round out the dish. In the middle is the pinch of salt that brings things together.

Gordon White's oeuvre is similar. Star.Ships is the rich resonate base, Chaos Protocols include both the bitter and sweet notes that support the dish, and Pieces of Eight -- his third and newest book -- finishes the dish. The base tells you that the dish comes from rich stock. The middle that it's healthy and nourishing. But finishing is the local flavor that turns it from a general dish into a localized one (pinch of London chaos, squirt of grimoire).

The books form a coherent explanation of Gordon's worldview and approach to magic -- from the most theoretical and abstract to the most practical and concrete. It's all good stuff and you will no doubt learn a lot.

But in the middle is a hole. You can taste it.

Gordon has been blunt that there's a unwritable fourth book contained within the other three. For me, it's less a book than that book-shaped hole. You can judge its parameters by what's missing and estimate its scope by the questions you ask. That book is about applicability and flexibility. It's about taking what's there and turning it into your own coherent worldview and approach. The trick is that Gordon can't write it, because the reader needs to write it for themselves.

Many of the criticisms of Gordon's books I've read seem to boil down to "needs salt." If Gordon were trying to sell you on his "tradition" (come to the Chaos side, we have cookies) you'd either find the book wholly helpful or not to your taste. But he's not doing that. He's specific, yes (and Pieces of Eight is more specific than Chaos Protocols which is more specific than Star.Ships) but fundamentally what's he's proposing are examples rather than recipes. He expects you to cook up your own.


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