Monday, August 13, 2012

Changing the Future... with Love, Magic, & Time Travel


Humans have probably been longing to go back in time since... well, since man first realized there was a “back then”, and that things in the past may hold clues about the future.

Short of running across an H.G. Wellsian time machine or a souped-up Delorean, though, such time-traveling jaunts have long been viewed as either ridiculously unlikely (by the glass-nearly-empty naysayers) or a maybe-one-day possibility (by the glass-half-full hopefuls)... until now, that is (and still, possible only if you’re chummy with a time-weaving witch willing to take you along for the ride).

Good thing that Diana Bishop (an American professor at Oxford) is just that sort of witch, then, because she and fellow scholar (and ancient vampire) Matthew Clairmont have an urgent need to go back, way back, following the events in last year’s A Discovery of Witches [see review here] by Deborah Harkness. 

At least, it would be a good thing, if only Diana weren’t so woefully-untrained at almost every aspect of being a witch. 

Shadow of Night is their tale of what happens next...

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Things were looking rather grim for Diana and Matthew when we last saw them. After escaping the clutches of a host of very determined (and awfully bloodthirsty) creatures in Europe, they fled to America, seeking refuge in her ancestral New England home. Their plan was to stay under the supernatural radar while Diana trained with her aunts (both witches), hopefully learning how to use the various talents she’d inherited from her parents--namely, how to travel through time. 

Why the urgency? Because, while at Oxford, she’d stumbled upon an ancient manuscript which had long been missing--a mysterious tome which subsequently disappeared again... but not before nearly every other creature in the world (witch, vampire, and demon) heard about it, and knew that she was the one it had chosen to appear to (however briefly).  

So what’s the big deal about that particular book, anyway? Basically, it’s an origin-of-the-supernatural-species book, and holds genetic clues to their creation. (In an era when fewer creatures are being born/created--a condition which will lead to eventual extinction, if not reversed--that’s a very big thing.)

Through trial and error, Diana figures out how to whisk herself and Matthew away to a time when he says the enchanted manuscript was generally known to be around. His chosen destination? Scotland, circa 1590... unfortunately, when the political and religious leaders are calling for witch burnings.  

Not everything about 1590 is bad, of course--particularly not to an historian like Diana, and especially not when she learns that Matthew is part of the infamous School of Night, a group of thinkers, writers, and scientists--among them Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Harriot, and Sir Walter Raleigh--who met and debated matters of science, religion, and philosophy. (She’s almost giddy the first time she’s in their collective presence.)

Still, there are major hurdles to overcome. First, Diana is clearly out of her element. She doesn’t sound right (or look right, though there isn’t much to be done about her modern-day size in an era of smaller-statured women); she’ll need a crash course in 16th-century dialects and vocabulary if she’s to pass among the people. Second, she still knows next to nothing about being a witch; she needs to know spells useful for searching out and deciphering the wayward book. Finding a knowledgeable witch to tutor her--not the easiest task given the public persecutions--is vital. Third, Matthew will have to confront his own past, which means dealing with painful things he’d rather not face again as well as things he’d like to change but can’t (as doing so would alter the future--a huge no-no, obviously).

Meanwhile, life goes on around them, creating additional problems. Always in danger of the wrong people finding out who, what (and even when) they are, Matthew and Diana, plus their small entourage, race around Europe (as fast as 1590s transportation allows, anyway), going from Scotland to France to London to Austria and back to London again, as circumstances and historic persons (some related to their mission and others not) force them to alter their plans again and again. 

Will they get their hands on the accursed manuscript they came so many miles--and so many centuries--to find (and if so, what will they do with it once they have it), or will they fail miserably in their attempts? One way or the other, the clock is ticking down, in the present and in the past...

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A Discovery of Witches was a delightfully-original and compelling find last year, and Shadow of Night is its well-deserved sequel. Intelligent and utterly engrossing, the focus now is on the lifestyles of a long-ago era (rather than on the intricacies of supernaturals and their relationships), and author/historian Harkness delves into the past with gusto, providing a fabulous sense of the period. (Appearances, smells, sounds, tastes, and moods... she paints vivid pictures of everything with an extraordinary eye and ear for detail.) 

Shadow of Night is also a deeply-romantic tale. Yes, there are plenty of steamy scenes, as layer (after layer after layer!) is unbuttoned, unlaced, and painstakingly removed--and making up for the dearth of “shmexy” in the first book, which was noticeably chaste--but that’s not what I mean; this one’s romantic in the literal sense, in an overtly-sentimental way. (For me, that aspect comes across a little schmaltzy, but that’s just a personal preference thing; I suspect many other readers will revel in the sheer romance of it all.) 

Fortunately, the thrilling action which continuously swirls around the large and deliciously-colorful cast of characters (both real and imagined) more than makes up for that one quibble. Shadow of Night is, by and large, a sumptuous and enchanting read. It’s an epic tale to savor. :)  

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  4 out of 5 Anxiously-Awaited Mousies