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Man’s eternal quest for a higher power and spiritual enlightenment is at the center of J.L. Weinberg’s genre-bending debut, True Religion.
Protagonist Seth Davis, gay journalist and Manhattanite, is himself a restless spirit when True Religion opens. Attending a summer holiday party with his screenwriter boyfriend in the picturesque riverside town of Hope Springs, Pennsylvania—here a thinly-veiled fictional stand-in for artsy New Hope—Seth has an unexpected ghostly encounter that sets off a New Age spirit quest. What follows is a paranormal adventure packed with occultism, genealogy, past life regressions, early American history, and even a dash of incest.
Admittedly, True Religion is an ambitious first novel. Weinberg stuffs his literary trunk here with multiple subplots and weighty themes, and—for the most part—he admirably manages to keep the proceedings manageable. A soapy subplot involving a squabbling coven of witches is particularly enjoyable with its decidedly campy vibe that may call to mind NBC’s now-defunct daytime soap opera Passions. Other storylines—like a proposed nuclear power plant and the environmental activists trying to stop it—work less well and are handled heavy-handedly, making the narrative thread seem less germane to the larger story and more a preachy eco-friendly platform.
Weinberg demonstrates an extraordinary attention to detail throughout True Religion, most effectively when his witches participate in sacred rituals or cast spells. His vivid depiction of Hope Springs is also chock-full of lush details, bringing the haunted tourist town to spooky life. Weinberg easily calls to mind the amiable paranormal world-building of Charlaine Harris in his creation of Hope Springs and its quirky cast of witches, ghosts, mystics and mortals. He ably paints Hope Springs with such a sense of timelessness that his choice to set the story in the ‘80s then seems random, with no real sense of correlation between the story and the time period. Less effective is the author’s tendency to information dump, particularly in endless passages where his protagonist visits libraries and pours through ancient texts. Here the action grinds to a halt and the reader may find himself skipping ahead to see how much longer their mandatory time-out in the library will be.
These small criticisms aside, True Religion is an engaging work of speculative fiction. Part thriller, part contemporary fantasy, Weinberg’s charming debut hits all the right marks. Readers will enjoy Seth’s journey from the quintessential agnostic to the spiritually connected and likely make some friends among the denizens of Hope Springs along the way.
By J.L. Weinberg
Chelsea Station Editions
Paperback, 9781937672034, 352 pp.