Tim O'Laughlin,
Phoenix Fire
(BodhiDarma, 2001)

From a small, independent publisher comes a first novel of remarkably polished prose, smooth plotting and sympathetic, believably drawn characters. The author, Sacramento's Tim O'Laughlin, imaginatively expands on that well-known bit of advice given to all fledgling writers: write what you know.

Phoenix Fire, a novel steeped in the local color details of its Mendocino, California setting, uses its grounding in the realities of its contemporary backdrop to make the outré aspects of its fantastical/spiritual/mythic fiction style and contents believable within the context of the narrative -- a story which blends religious beliefs, much of them about reincarnation, with ecology.

On the previously mentioned California coast, compelling circumstances bring a small group of strangers together to undertake a mutual search for past-life memories, finding connections with each other that span many lifetimes. The reunion of soulmates occurs despite danger looming on the horizon, in a learning process bestowing on them the knowledge that they have been in conflict with "The One Without a Soul." This has been happening lifetime after lifetime, through the ages, in battles they lose, perishing, only to try again repeatedly in death and rebirth cycles.

These protagonists include Ryan, a skilled lawyer and musician who, though content with his life, still seeks his life partner, and Larry, a retired psychologist specializing in past-life regression, who moves to the area to enjoy his retirement. Larry helps Ryan to unite with Audrey, CEO of Project Headwaters Organization for the Preservation of the Environment, which exists solely to champion conservation causes, especially the saving of old-growth forests. Similarly, Larry brings together soulmates Pam and Doug, Ryan's neighbors, and then finds one for himself -- Gayle, proprietor of a small shop filled with eclectic items, some of a rather mystical nature, which reflect the owner's interests. Larry, the catalyst who caused the group to coalesce, leads them all through insightful regressions to find information frequently unexpected but always valuable.

This circle of couples learns that, in this lifetime, the current version of their ancient antagonist, the CEO of Amalgamated Insurance, Raymond Baker, behaves like a monster in human guise, so extremely self-centered, he survives only for the gratification he receives from wielding great personal power and from the torment of others. Baker's latest course of destruction involves the hostile takeover of a local lumber company with the intent of cutting as much old-growth forest as possible.

The protagonists' regression-gained knowledge from ancient spirits informs them that the scales are balanced -- either side potentially can triumph with the recently re-unified group prevailing only if they can learn to face their fears and hold love close -- for the besting of Baker means that not only will precious trees be saved, but a cosmic shift will ensue to bring about a renewal of astonishing and surprising hope.

Phoenix Fire very originally and cleverly blends many diverse topics in a convincing manner, including reincarnation, Native American spirituality, mountain biking, acoustic music and a lawsuit to determine the fate of ancient redwood groves. O'Laughlin mixes it all into a yarn in which the realistic details give the fantastic elements a bizarre plausibility. The intricate plot/subplot threads involving sympathetic characters and believably motivated villains are rendered in smooth and flowing prose rich in vivid description and emotional intensity -- and contain deep spiritual and metaphysical underpinnings. This contemporary mythic fantasy makes its age-old battle of good vs. evil theme refreshing and new again because of the eternal relevance of the philosophical messages painlessly embedded in the exciting narrative. A heaping spoonful of Phoenix Fire makes the medicine go down in the most delightful and thrilling way!

[ by Amy Harlib ]



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