Saturday, January 11, 2020

"A Discovery of Witches," "Shadow of Night," and "The Book of Life": A Review of Deborah Harkness's Trilogy

Goodreads, Discovery of Witches
What if our world were composed not just of ordinary humans but also vampires, witches, and daemons? And what if these additions to the human world were developed not as fantastic creatures but as other alternatives to evolution, such as the neanderthals, but with still paranormal abilities?

Deborah Harkness entered into the gothic realm of the supernatural novel about six years after young adult author Stephenie Meyer splashed into our awareness with her novel Twilight. It would not be inappropriate to mention similarities: handsome vampire, Romeo/Juliet romance, and if not sparkle, then at least a bit of glimmer. However, Harkness plants her feet more firmly in science and the adult world. The female protagonist, Diana Bishop, is a scholar albeit a witch who has renounced her abilities. Vampire Matthew Clairmont is a doctor and researcher who is pulled into the world of "creature" politics by Bishop's inadvertent discovery of a historically potent book of spells and knowledge, the Book of Life, also catalogued in an Oxford antiquities library as Ashmole 782.

Author Deborah Harkness is a scholar and professor of history, and even though her trilogy surfs the vampire fad of the early 2000s, she adds historical credibility and detail to the romance and bloody bosom-bearing passages. I checked the trilogy out of my local public library, and at about 1,600 pages of reading, I have to honestly say that if the narrative did not drag, it did at times bog down in excessive minutiae of plot, perhaps a scholar's fascination for reconstructing history? The overall arc of the plot, though, which is both globe-spanning and time-spanning, does introduce a fascinating variety of settings and characters. Sir Walter Raleigh, anyone?

One powerful tool Harkness uses in her trilogy is science. The vampires and the witch tradition have existed long enough in the series to allow for a lively interaction between the advancement of scientific knowledge and the hidden existence of the magical "creatures." How do they exist, and why? What is their place in the world in relation to plain old humanity? The interplay between ancient lore and modern science promotes quite a bit of the novel's drive.

Another strength of the trilogy--and I have to say that I admire Harkness for this skill--is the author's ability to create and develop a wide range of interesting and unique minor characters. Sometimes the main characters become foils to highlight the fascinating personalities of the minor characters. Some of these characters are historical and some are creations of the author. I found them all enjoyable and couldn't get enough of them, especially since these minor characters not only became themselves on the page but also came to define through example the characteristics of vampire, daemon, witch, and human. And, yes, some of the most dynamic minor characters were human.

Finally, this series would be just another foray into the twilight without the underlying thread of discrimination, persecution, and intolerance that laces the story together. Humanity is a study of these cruelties, and the novels intelligently weave man's inhumanities along with devoted love and objective science to create a perspective, I think, that transcends the genre. Deborah Harkness has added another novel to the trilogy--Time's Convert, which continues the saga, continuing to utilize the organizational structure of combining present action with the characters' past actions. I plan to give the series a bit of a rest, and then I'll pick up the fourth book and give it a go.

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