I had never heard of Deborah Harkness until I saw a copy of A Discovery of Witches in the book aisle at Target. It was blue and sparkly, and there was that word: Witches. I lived in a small town at the time, and I ran into my students and their parents at Target fairly often. Walking around with that book in my cart wasn’t something I could just do without fear of repercussions. OK, fine – not repercussions. I’ll put my delusions of grandeur on the back burner for now. Embarrassment – is that better? Embarrassment.
But at the same time, I had a feeling that I would like this book. I don’t remember what the book jacket said, but I left with a sense of the novel’s smart, insecure protagonist facing both an academic challenge (this protagonist, Diana Bishop, is a history professor who specializes in alchemy, and she has found and then lost a mysterious manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian library) and a threat to the safety of her established routine, which she has designed to keep other people – especially men – at a distance. And yes, she’s a witch, which is silly. But the fact that she’s a witch doesn’t change the fact that she is 100% human. Her magical abilities function the way genius or talent sometimes functions in a person’s life: it deepens her identity, creates challenges and heartache, and is the locus of her vulnerability.
And yes, there are vampires in this book – and, as you may know, vampires are not my favorite things. But these vampires – Matthew Clairmont and his ‘family’ of tortured, powerful undead types – are exceptions. These are fascinating vampires. Matthew’s brother Baldwin and father Philippe are some of my favorite characters in any book, ever – in spite of the fact that neither is really on stage much.
Jill and I both read A Discovery of Witches before we started this blog, and we both reviewed its sequel, Shadow of Night, when Postcards from Purgatory was in its infancy. You can read my review here and Jill’s review here. Shadow of Night is even better than A Discovery of Witches.
Excuse a bit of brief proselytizing: Read these books. If you have a vacation coming up, read these books on the plane. If you’re a teacher and have the summer off, read these books in your backyard or on the beach or – my usual preference – in the privacy of your excessively air-conditioned Girl Cave. If you don’t have the summer off, consider quitting your job – or at least fake some illness or injury so you can justify taking a few days off. Reading these books won’t take too long. Your boss probably won’t fire you for reading witch books.
I also have a bit of quick crowdsourcing to do. If any of our readers have already read the Harkness novels and can help me out, I would really appreciate it. In Shadow of Night, most of the plot takes place in Elizabethan England (Yes, there’s TIME TRAVEL in it!), but on 3-4 occasions the plot is interrupted and a scene set in the present day is inserted. These scenes are set in the office of a lawyer or banker of some kind – and I think it involves some people needing to get an object out of a safe deposit box or some such thing. And I think these scenes take place in Switzerland? I remember wanting to make some speculations about these scenes when I reviewed the book, but choosing not to because my review was getting too long. I don’t think Jill and I even discussed them – and hashing out suggestive minutiae is one of our very favorite things to so. My copy of Shadow of Night is on my Kindle, so it will not be especially convenient for me to go back and reread these scenes. Can anyone enlighten me on how these scenes fit into the larger plot? I remember being about 75% sure of why they were included – there were enough details included to give me a general sense of how they were connected to the characters and plot of the series as a whole, but they were still invested in plenty of mystery.
The third novel in this trilogy, The Book of Life, is coming out on July 15, and I am very much looking forward to dedicating a few days of my summer to enjoying it in large doses. If you have any interest at all in fiction that deals with academia, with history, with the intersections of science and magic, with complicated, tormented characters finding fulfillment in love and marriage, I highly recommend this series – even if in general you think witches and vampires are kind of lame.