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Posts Tagged ‘A Discovery of Witches’

Sarah Perry follows up her fabulous 2016 novel The Essex Serpent with a lush literary Gothic, Melmoth (Custom House/HarperCollins, digital galley), which thrills in a more haunting and somber manner. In 2016, middle-aged British translator Helen Franklin leads an austere life in Prague, apparently to atone for an undisclosed incident in her past. But then her friend Karel disappears after having given her a strange, confessional manuscript whose stories are tied together by the spectral figure of Melmoth. The latter is a creature out of folklore and myth, doomed to wander the world in solitude as she witnesses acts of betrayal throughout history. She appears to those lonely souls consumed by guilt and complicity who have given into despair, and then bids them follow her. She is so lonely. Why, then, is she watching Helen? Or is it just Helen’s fevered imagination, inspired by the manuscripts’s chilling stories, perhaps her own suppressed guilt? Helen’s tale is full of portents like chattering jackdaws, but it’s what she — and the reader — witness in the manuscript that imprints on the memory: crimes of war, suffering and exile. “Look!” is Perry’s imperative throughout. Witness the heartache but also the hope of forgiveness. Given Perry’s way with words, it’s hard to look away.

 

Dale Bailey’s In the Night Wood (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley) is a clever and chilling novel of marriage, grief, obsession and Something Mysterious. American college professor Charles Hayden and his wife Erin take up residence at the secluded English estate that was once home of the Victorian writer Caedmon Hollow, author of a strange, fanciful book, “In the Night Wood.” The recent death of their young daughter Lissa haunts both Charles and Erin. She has given up her law career and numbs her grief with pills and drink, while Charles tries to escape his by researching Hollow’s tragic life. At different times, both glimpse a sinister horned man in the encroaching woods who figured in Hollow’s book. Further research and a series of coincidences has Charles believing that there is fact in the fiction of the pagan god Herne the Hunter. A little girl from the village has disappeared in the wood; her body has not been found. Bailey is adept at building a menacing atmosphere, although numerous literary allusions tend to overload his prose and sap the magic.

Witches, vampires and demons intermingle with mere mortals in Deborah Harkness’ popular All Souls Trilogy, which began with A Discovery of Witches (now a British TV series). With Time’s Convert (Viking Penguin, digital galley), Harkness returns to that world, bringing back many familiar characters, including witch Diana Bishop and vampire Matthew de Clermont, now married and parents of young twins. But the main characters are Matthew’s son Marcus Whitmore, who became a vampire while a field doctor in the American Revolution, and 23-year-old human Phoebe Taylor, who is about to become a vampire in Paris and marry Marcus. Harkness moves back and forth between centuries and exotic locales to chronicle the mental and physical struggles the pair undergo separately to satisfy the demands of tradition. Readers familiar with Harkness’s previous works will appreciate the further adventures of her characters and the elaboration on customs. The twins Becca and Philip are already showing signs of having inherited their parents’ magical talents. Philip, in fact, has a new play pal — a griffin called Apollo.

With Dracul (Putnam/Penguin, digital galley), Dacre Stoker, a descendant of Dracula creator Bram Stoker, teams with writer J.D. Barker to come up with a prequel to the classic vampire novel, and Bram himself is a main character. Readers are introduced to him as a terrified 21-year-old in 1868, waiting alone in a tower at night. As Something lurks outside the locked door, Bram writes of his family’s history in Ireland, primarily his own sickly childhood. He was miraculously saved from death by his nursemaid Ellen Crone, who then disappeared. Some years later, Bram’s sister Matilda reports from Paris that she has seen Ellen, and so begins a quest leading to the revelation that Ellen is a Dearg-Due, a bloodsucking creature of Irish folklore but subject to a more powerful master. (I’m not giving the story away — readers will be aware that Ellen is some sort of vampire from the get-go). Dracul is too over-the-top to provide the genuine chills of the original Dracula, but it’s an entertaining tale nonetheless.

 

An English country house. A missing diamond. A sepia photograph. A star-crossed romance. A children’s story. A plucky orphan. A disappearance. A drowning. A ghost. . . The ghost plays a major role in Kate Morton’s new saga, The Clockmaker’s Daughter (Atria Books, review copy), which I reviewed for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The review hasn’t been published yet, but as soon as it does, I’ll post it on Facebook and Goodreads and provide a link here. Happy Halloween!

 

 

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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.

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The new normal is the paranormal in much of today’s fiction, both literary and commercial. Here a ghost, there a zombie, everywhere a vampire or a werewolf. But several recent novels enchant with the magic of storytelling even as they trip the light fantastic.

Alice Hoffman, of course, is one of the leading practitioners of American magical realism, known as much for her luminous writing as her tales tinged with whimsy. My favorites include Seventh Heaven, Practical Magic,  The River King and Blackbird House. The latter is comprised of  stories linked by a Cape Cod house built during Colonial times by a fisherman who drowned at sea. A blackbird with wings of white reappears to succeeding generations as they experience fable-like encounters and transformations.

Hoffman’s most recent book, The Red Garden (Crown), is similar in form and style as its stories tell the history of  the small Massachustts town of Blackwell. All stem from town founder Hallie Brady’s determination to keep herself and her fellow settlers from starvation by forging a kinship with the wilderness, especially its black bears. A river full of eels, a mysterious garden, tomatoes that grant wishes, a woman with hair so long she can step on it. Hoffman’s lyrical fables are full of fate and magic and metaphor. And how wonderful that  Johnny Appleseed himself visits Blackwell once upon a time.

“Wonderful” is a good word, too, to describe Jo Walton’s new novel, Among Others (Tor). It’s a coming-of-age, sense-of-wonder tale told through the journal entries of Welsh teen Mori, a stranger in the strange land of a British boarding school. She and her twin sister used to escape from their witch of a mother by playing in the magical outdoors and talking to the fairies. But now Mori, still limping from a terrible accident, keeps to herself, seeking refuge in science fiction and fantasy books. 

“There are some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there are also some great books. When I grow up I would like to write something that someone could read sitting on a bench on a day that isn’t all that warm and they could sit reading it and totally forget where they were or what time it was so that they were more inside the book than inside their own head. I’d like to write like Delany or Heinlein or Le Guin.”

Mori’s world expands, thanks to to inter-library loan, a SF reading group, and the rebellious drop-out Win, “rarer than a unicorn, a beautiful boy in a red-checked shirt who read and thought and talked about books.” But before she can begin the next chapter of her life, Mori must reckon with the spells of the past. 

Among Others reminded me of how many hours I spent as a teen lost in the other worlds of Delany, Heinlein and Le Guin. My to re-read list gets ever longer. I’ve also added Sheri Holman’s The Dress Lodger, although her new novel, Witches on the Road Tonight (Grove/Atlantic) is altogether different, mixing Appalachian mountain myth with the poignant story of a conflicted man’s life. It begins: “Of all the props I saved, only the coffin remains.”

Eddie Alley was once a TV weatherman who gained small-town fame as Captain Casket, host of a late-night horror show. His love of monster movies dates back to his Depression-era boyhood in rural Virginia, where a WPA writer named Tucker Hayes shows Eddie a flickering Frankenstein with a hand-held projector. Eddie is as captivated by this visitor as Tucker is taken with Eddie’s mother Cora, who gathers ginseng (“sang”) and has a reputation as a witch.

Holman shuttles between present-day New York, where aging Eddie leaves a phone message about sang to his TV anchor daughter Wallis; to Panther Gap, where Tucker, a reluctant World War II draftee, stays longer than planned; to the late 1970s, when Wallis is 12 and her father brings home the orphaned Jasper. Holman also artfully shifts perspectives as mystery and magic meet.  The overall arc is a bit uneven because the events at Panther Gap overshadow Wallis’ suburban childhood.

Deborah Harkness’ debut, A Discovery of Witches, is pop paranormal, crowded with witches, vampires and daemons living among us poor unaware humans. Impossibly smart and attractive, Diana Bishop comes from a long line of famous witches, but she prefers to do her historical research without magic. But then she opens a medieval manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library and finds the palimpsest thrumming with magic. Suddenly, many of the undead are on the trail of the book and its secrets, including the impossibly handsome and brilliant vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont. 

Once you buy into the premise, the tale proves to be a well-written escapist romp with just enough romance and real history to make its 500-plus pages mostly worth reading. (I admit to skimming through the yoga sessions). Be forewarned: The ending isn’t really the end. This is the first book in the All Souls trilogy.

Open Book: I bought hardcover copies of The Red Garden and A Discovery of Witches and e-book versions of Among Others and Witches on the Road tonight. This is the thing with e-book pricing; sometimes the dead-tree format costs less or pretty much the same with discounts. As many books as I buy, I’d still rather save money than space.

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