In last summer’s best-seller, A Discovery of Witches, author and historian Deborah Harkness introduced readers to Diana Bishop, an American scholar with witch DNA, and Matthew Clairmont, an Oxford geneticist and centuries-old vampire. The two came together in the search for an ancient alchemical manuscript, Ashmole 782, that may explain the origins of the supernatural world and its witches, vampires and daemons. After pages and pages, Diana and Matthew were left calling on her untapped powers as a timespinner to go back to Elizabethean England.
I liked the first book for the most part, with its often heady mix of history, science, romance and fantasy. But I soon tired of supernatural yoga classes and squabbles, and I resented the cliffhanger ending, which tempered my enthusiasm for a sequel that would also be the middle book of the All Souls trilogy. Really, another 600 pages and then wait for the third book a year from now?
Yes, yes, whatever. Shadow of Night (Viking Penguin, digital galley via NetGalley) may be the fastest 600 pages I’ve read since Harry Potter. Harkness’ dynamic duo interact with historical figures, a number of whom have their own supernatural secrets (Christopher Marlowe is a jealous daemon), and journey to London, France and Prague in search of a tutor for Diana and the lost manuscript. They are threatened by witch-hunters, meet up with Matthew’s powerful father, and make true friends and more enemies while trying not to trip up the past and thus change the present. Oh, they also get married, even though witches and vampires aren’t supposed to. As for what the future holds, we’ll just have to wait.
Happily, since paranormal is the new normal, there are other books of mystery and magic to enjoy. Carsten Stroud’s Niceville (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley via NetGalley) is all over the place and over the top with its energetic story of a small Southern town beset by trigger-happy thieves, mysterious random disappearances, a bloodsoaked past and Something Evil from beyond the grave. Detective Nick Kavanaugh isn’t sure what’s going on, even though his wife Kate is from one of Niceville’s founding families, but he dutifully charges forth into the murk and mayhem. I followed and tried not to overthink, or even think.
Sadie Jones’ The Uninvited Guests (HarperCollins, e-book borrowed from library) is altogther different, a wicked delight and/or delightfully wicked. The Edwardian country-house setting and class-conscious characters reminded me a bit of Dodie Smith, P.G. Wodehouse and Muriel Spark, but Jones’ pen is more poisonous. Emerald Torrington’s 20th birthday dinner party is disrupted by news of a train derailment and the arrival of a group of survivors. All are from the third-class carriage with the exception of one peculiar gentleman, who quickly insinuates himself with the family and their few invited guests, claiming old acquaintanceship with Emerald’s mother. She is appalled by his presence but also curiously afraid, and the mystery deepens as he orchestrates a parlor game that sets the players at odds with one another and can only end in tears. The story won’t be everyone’s cup of tea — too strange and bitter — but the shenanigans of Emerald’s young sister Smudge provide needed levity, and really, all’s well that ends well. At least for some people.