I first chanced across Liber Null and Psychonaut a year and a half ago, walking through a chain bookstore. At that time I had already (briefly) investigated Wicca, and was still searching around for my path (which remains the case to an extent). Having seen articles on Chaos Magick online, I was fascinated, and my curiosity was further piqued upon browsing through the slim book.
In retrospect it was easy to see the fascination; the author is very fond of making bold and poetic assertions (on pacts with spiritual entities, Carroll says "however useful such things may be to him in the short term, the sorcerer must eventually recant"). The trouble with this is that anyone without a background in the occult or a strong BS detector will not be aware of those instances where a blatantly false statement is made (there are several statements that imply all magicians practice in relation to the Chaos world view). I have personally found that studying Ceremonial Magick and the Qabbalah actually makes parts of the book easier to understand.
So then, perhaps I should discuss the basics a little closer. Carroll posits a universe which is an expression of Chaos. That which is "real" is just a small part of Chaos. There is a vast realm of possibility which doesn't exist, except in a realm of "aetherics" (or at least this appears to be the gist of what Carroll says. He is known to self-contradict on occasion). Magick involves playing with the rules of the universe, to get an end achieved. Think of it as getting away with cheating whilst playing a board game.
In the chaos worldview, no paradigm is strictly true. Chaos contains all possibilities, whereas paradigms involve the denying of some qualities while embracing others (for example, one cannot be both monotheistic and polytheistic). The Chaos magician does not believe in the inherent truth of anything, but selects certain beliefs which will help him to conduct an operation.
Which all sounds very interesting, and it certainly had me engrossed when reading the book for the first and second time. The first part (Liber Null) is essentially a course syllabus which also reads like a how-to guide. This is a little confusing because you find yourself reading the whole book to understand the philosophy, and simultaneously find that you are not supposed to be attempting the practices you've read about until mastered the early parts.
The second part (Psychonaut) is essentially a book regarding Chaos Magick as akin to a religious practice...which I find very odd considering that Chaos Magick is not intended to embrace any paradigm as being "true" of itself.
Now, I like the book in many ways, but I also have several problems with the book. One problem that has been noted by many others (just look at reviews on Amazon!) is that Carroll states certain things as fact, without any explanation of why. It makes for good poetry and reading, but it's not so useful to anyone without a good sense of critical thinking, who has other sources to compare to.
Furthermore, it is rather skin-deep, which is to be expected from such a small book. It works acceptably for looking at magick on Chaos Magick's terms, but it is less helpful for addressing concepts such as changing one's personal paradigm. Furthermore, Carroll does not show where many ideas have been obtained. Reading Aleister Crowley works will furnish you with a source for many of the ideas, and Aleister Crowley discusses symbology in much greater depth.
So, are there any plus points to the book? I'd answer, "yes" (which is just as well, since I spent £15 on it).
The book does deal with some new ideas. The idea of performing magick without believing in the ultimate reality of the system can prove very liberating. It can certainly remove issues you might have with some of the "trimmings" of ritual. (For example, the Christian/Jewish associations of Ceremonial Magick are much easier to handle once you get past thinking of them as crucial to the magick).
Further, some of the practices do yield positive benefits. If you accept the premise that your "self" is illusory, and that any beliefs etc. are not a reflection of your true "self," change becomes easier. I have had occasions when, suffering from depression, I found I could negate the need for reassuring myself of my own self-worth by deciding to "throw away" the emotion until I could deal with it more appropriately.
Secondly, the book suggests ways for simplifying magick. This may not mean much to those who say a quickly made rhyme while manipulating energy, but simplification may be a "god-send" to anyone who's ever tried performing a ten-page ritual. The simple alternative of sigil construction while entering a state of gnosis (which is essentially trance) is quite easy to use, if requiring some getting used to. Further, the different suggestions for entering gnosis (ranging from the experience of strong emotions to sensory deprivation) can provide the practitioner with new ways of approaching the task at hand.
So, who would I recommend the book to? If price isn't a consideration (if you want to conserve your money, I'd suggest skimming the book in the store and trying to absorb some of the ideas) then I recommend it to someone who, while new to magick, already has a good grounding in at least one system of magick, with some understanding of symbology. The book works well as a way of liberating oneself from beliefs, or at least giving the individual new ideas to work with.
For the newcomer to the occult, some ideas will seem too shocking (which is one of the principle forms of liberation), and the simplicity of the discussions will not advance the understanding much -- richer symbology will help the student to grasp what is done much better. Furthermore, the newcomer may uncritically accept much of what Carroll says, which may lead to some confusion, and will hinder the student in understanding other paths on their own terms (for example, the book tends towards the "all gods are aspects of One/Chaos" rather than hard polytheism).
An interesting book, if a flawed one. If you can work past or ignore the flaws, than the good ideas will widen your options for magick.
Reviewed by EverFool