Deborah Harkness novel conjures witches' brew of fact and fancy
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Sunday, April 03, 2011
4/03/11 at 5:35 AM
"It begins with absence and desire. It begins with blood and fear. It begins with a discovery of witches."
In a most fascinating and delightful debut novel, author Deborah Harkness gives witches their due with a hard-to-put-down epic tale.
"A Discovery of Witches" is difficult to classify, as Harkness - a noted historian - brings together several genres in her story. She introduces elements of mystery, subtly builds up a romance, interjects some breathtaking action scenes and brings it all to a cliff-hanger of an ending, all the while weaving strong threads of historical fact into the fabric of her fiction.
Her story begins when a long-lost manuscript is found in the Oxford University's Bodleian Library by a researcher of alchemy, who happens to be descended from the first woman executed for witchcraft in 1692 during the Salem trials. It sets off a chain of events attracting supernatural creatures and unleashing the hidden witchy talents of Diana Bishop, the main character.
Along the way, she encounters Matthew Clairmont, a 1,500-year-old vampire who is a geneticist with a taste for fine wine and challenging yoga. The two discover the manuscript is part of bigger tug-of-war between powerful preternatural beings.
The sweet witch-vampire courtship is written conservatively, so that the romantic elements never overwhelm Harkness' larger, over-arching themes of bigotry, evolution, fate and choice.
Harkness lards her tale with quotes from ancient and classic literature, as well as giving quick history lessons about such topics as the Crusades and Templar Knights. Yet these asides rarely slow the story's momentum.
The author is a history professor at the University of Southern California with several significant awards for scholarly work. Unlike some historical pieces that get bogged down in details, Harkness has a style of giving just enough to inform while keeping entertainment as the focus.
Granted, some of the writing slips into the stereotypical - vampires are beautiful, strong, rich and predatory while witches are magically gifted with human-like mannerisms. There is another group the writer developed out of Greek mythology - daemons - who have immense gifts of creative genius.
But it is a treat getting to know these characters who pop from the 579 pages with vivid descriptions and realistic dialogue and behavior. Their backgrounds trickle out and personalities come to life as secrets emerge and intrigue grows.
It is a fun journey to go from the intellectual surroundings of Oxford and an upscale vampire compound in France to the well-worn yet very much alive home of witches in rural New York. The last stop at the lived-in country home offers the most humor as bedrooms randomly are added and walls spit out lost, yet important, items.
"A Discovery of Witches" is the first volume in Harkness' All Souls trilogy, and it heralds a refreshing and sophisticated voice to the realms of urban fantasy.
Digging the facts out of fiction
Readers may feel the need to do a little extra digging themselves as they run across the smartly and slyly planted bits of history in "A Discovery of Witches" by Deborah Harkness.
"I couldn't resist hiding some historical details and a few clues relevant to the plot and characters of 'A Discovery of Witches' throughout the pages of the novel," she stated in a press packet.
"This is just the beginning," Harkness wrote. "There are more secret symbols, allusions and links to discover."
Among the tidbits Harkness says she pulled from fact:
Original Print Headline: Author conjures a witches’ brew of fact and fancy
- The missing-for-centuries manuscript at the heart of the story - known as Ashmole 782, once owned by Elias Ashmole in the 1600s - and which is found by the main character, is in fact an actual manuscript. And it remains lost.
- The title of the novel is based on a book written in 1647 by English witch hunter Matthew Hopkins, who devised a swim test to detect witches and looked for a "devil's mark" for evidence.
- An enemy vampire named Gerbert of Aurillac was a real person. He occupied the papacy as Pope Sylvester II from A.D. 999 to 1003. He was a scholar, the first French Pope and subject of legends that branded him a sorcerer.
- Another scary vampire in the story, Domenico Michele, was also a real person. He was the 35th Doge of Venice, governing during the 12th century.
- An owner of a pub in the book is named Reg Scott, which is a reference to Englishman Reginald Scott, who wrote "The Discoverie of Witchcraft" in 1584. He argued that witchcraft and magic did not exist.
- A character in the Bodleian Library is holding a copy of "Guide to Scripts Used in English Writings Up to 1500" by Jane Roberts, which is a common resource among historians working on the medieval period.
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376
A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES
By Deborah Harkness
Roots in history
Deborah Harkness: The author is a history professor at the University of Southern California with several significant awards for scholarly work. Unlike some historical pieces that get bogged down in details, Harkness has a style of giving just enough to inform while keeping entertainment as the focus.