January 19, 2012


All Souls Trilogy, Book One: A Discovery of Witches. By Deborah Harkness. Penguin. $16.

     Now available in paperback, Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches remains as fascinating and intriguing as it was at its hardcover publication last year. A novel that rises above not one but several formulaic genres, it is a tale of supernatural wonders for adults – adults who have experienced love, loss, longing and considerable intellectual excitement. It is something highly unusual: a fantasy for thinkers.

     It is not simply the book’s excitement, not its confrontations among disparate characters, not its finely tuned attention to the various powers of witches, vampires and daemons that sets it apart from pedestrian books featuring similar characters. It is the integration of the story of Diana Bishop, a descendant of witches who, for good reason, wants nothing to do with her heritage, with a considerable amount of genuine history and an equally large portion of invented but highly plausible historical events, that gives the book a solidity, a feeling of real-world existence even though so many of its characters are the stuff of adolescent fantasy.

     But this is emphatically not adolescent fantasy, as is clear from the casual way in which Harkness writes (and expects readers to understand) a line such as, “She missed nothing and had a longer memory than Mnemosyne.” A University of Southern California history professor, Harkness creates non-human characters with complex inner lives permeated by the same emotions that human readers feel: curiosity and wonder, love and desire, jealousy and hatred, anger and fear. There is a sense here that the characters have really lived in the real world, a sense heightened by the accurate depiction of such settings as Oxford’s Bodleian Library, where Anna’s discovery of an enchanted alchemical manuscript called Ashmole 782 starts the plot moving and becomes the linchpin of the exciting and often traumatic events that affect her and all those around her.

     On the simplest level, Anna is a type: the protagonist with enormous but untapped and untrained power, gradually coming into her own as she learns more about herself and her background. But Harkness resolutely refuses to let Anna be a cardboard character. Anna discovers her potential powers through genetic analysis of her DNA, for example; and rather than being a typically coy female protagonist, she is sexually experienced and is matter-of-fact when she bluntly says to the character with whom she has fallen in love, “Come to bed with me.”

     That character is as fascinating as Anna herself. He is Matthew Clairmont (or de Clermont), a brilliant geneticist with considerable interest in history – not surprising, since he has lived through 1,500 years of it. Matthew is a vampire, and he too seems on the surface to be a type: deadly, driven, handsome, intense and brooding. But here too, Harkness refuses to descend into cliché, giving Matthew depth, solidity and an emotional and sexual life transcending the norm for the vampiric. Yes, Matthew has an ancestral castle (in France, not Transylvania), and yes, his increasing involvement with Anna puts him dangerously at odds with other vampires and with the Congregation, a powerful and frightening nine-member panel that includes three members of each supernatural race and is pledged to prevent mixing and potential interbreeding of witches, vampires and daemons. But Matthew also spends time with Anna at candlelit dinners featuring a multiplicity of fine wines (Harkness is a dedicated and knowledgeable oenophile) and at supernatural yoga classes – and the two quarrel most intensely when his attempts to manage and control her for her own safety run directly into her strong-willed (and often headstrong) determination to handle her own future as her powers begin, slowly and then more rapidly, to emerge. The powers of Anna and others are themselves out of the ordinary: the first scene involving “witchwater” is amazing, and a house with personality, which slams its own doors in anger and adds rooms as they are needed, provides a touch of simultaneous levity and weirdness.

     Harkness is not the only current novelist rethinking the supernatural and creating fantasy books with depth, for adult readers. For example, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and The Magician King are notable for their determination to show that even if magic exists, it will be practiced by highly fallible human beings who will make as many errors as correct decisions – to their own sorrow and that of those for whom they care. But Grossman’s essentially pessimistic vision is quite different from that of Harkness, who includes plenty of darkness and some genuinely scary scenes in A Discovery of Witches but who nevertheless asserts that love has the potential, if not to conquer all, at least to mitigate a great deal of harm – physical, mental and emotional. Although Harkness had done considerable scholarly writing, this erudite and stylistically assured book was, amazingly, her debut novel. The second part of the trilogy, Shadow of Night, is due out this summer. Harkness has set herself a very high standard for that book. This one provides considerable evidence that she will live up to it.

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