I’m really behind, now what the hell have I been reading for the past two months…!? It might have been these (the trouble with trilogies is they go on for ages…)
A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night. The Book of Life : Deborah Harkness Headline
The first book of this trilogy is an excellent, romantic witch and vampire romp with a bit of academia thrown in (who can resist a book set mainly in a library, especially if that library is the Bodleian!). I enjoyed this as much as I did Buffy the Vampire Slayer – my all time favourite witch and vampire romp. ‘Discovery’ jogs along at a great pace, from the library to the river, out to Woodstock where Matthew has one of his about 1,000 houses and eventually over to United States where Diana is originally from. Diana (a witch who hasn’t really been a witch much due to being spellbound) and Matthew (a tall, dark and mysterious vampire) are pretty enjoyable to be around – especially Matthew, but that may be because he’s already Matthew Goode in my head and no-one does suave and dangerous quite as well as him…I digress…and we join them on their quest to find 3 missing pages from Ashmole 782. This quest takes us all over Europe – we will indeed encounter many more of Matthew’s 1,000 houses before this tale is done – and all over time too.
Now usually I’m a great one for a bit of time travel (Dr Who, the works of Kate Mosse, I was hooked by Alison Uttley’s ‘A Traveller in Time’ when I was a small girl). But ooof, the second of the books is a bit of a slog. ‘Shadow of Night’ felt to me a bit like Harkness was doing “just look at all the stuff I’ve learned about Tudor London/Rudolf II’s court in Prague/medieval french upper class life…I’m now going to share all of it with you!”. That’s fine and maybe some readers enjoy having everything thouroughly backgrounded, but for me it really dragged the story almost to a halt. GET ON WITH IT my unheard inner voice was screaming to the completely deaf book. To be honest it almost lost me, so before it did I took a bit of a break to read The City and The City (see below)
But let’s get all three books done here shall we. Eventually D&M get to see The Missing Book Ashmole 782 in Rudolf II’s collection (there are a few alchemists along the way, Dr Dee and Edmund Kelley for two) and D can tell it’s made from skin, but not the skin of a calf…you know where this is going. Yes, it’s made of the skin etc of witches, vampires and daemons. So now we know. After lot of pages – and after bumping into D’s time travelling Dad in Tudor London, because we have to have the meet the parents bit, and after D is pregnant again (having miscarried their first baby) – they get back to modern times eventually – to the Bishop house in Madison, and Book 3 – The Book of Life.
It picks up a bit in Book 3, which is much more like the first. There is yet more dashing about the globe to M’s many houses in his many black Range Rovers and private jets (there’s quite a bit of gushing about material wealth in these books which I really didn’t enjoy) and hanging out in Yale laboratories studying DNA. They let humans in on the secret too eventually, via D’s African-American friend Chris who is a very famous geneticist (as is Matthew, a scientist vampire does make sense, science really does takes a long time) and they make An Important Discovery.
Despite the ban put in place waaay back, by the Convocation of Creatures, on witches and vampires consorting together, and that they shouldn’t be able to even get pregnant anyway, D gives birth to twins in a glamorous bedroom in Chelsea. We discover Matthew has a deranged son called Benjamin, who is kidnapping witches to try to make them pregnant. There’s a face off between Benjamin and D in the Bodleian (I’m sure that’s not allowed) but he gets away – not for long though. There are in fact face offs a plenty in this volume and, with a bit of help from The Goddess, D steps up each time. D eventually ends up going to speak to the Congregation herself – in Venice of course, not Birmingham or Manchester – having to face a few more enemies in the process. Being Diana, she sorts things out, and things are looking good for creature relations from here on in. It would appear they will all live happily ever after…BUT there is a spin-off on the way about Marcus (M’s non evil son) and Phoebe (an antiques expert from Sotheby’s and Marcus’s girlfriend at this point) so who knows?
Well, I kind of enjoyed this, but really feel it could have been told in far fewer pages, maybe 600 fewer. I’m not anti a long saga at all, but this tale could have rolled along really brilliantly and have been truly gripping with far less exposition and by cutting down on the history lessons. I’m actually thinking it’ll be much better as a TV series – though being SKY-less I’ll have to watch it via some kind of magical means. If any witches have any tips I’m all ears…
The City and The City : China Mielleville Tor
I put my hands up and confess I read this off the back of the recent BBC/Mammoth Screen adaptation. The TV version was good, carried by a great performance from David Morrissey as Tyador Borlú the down at heel, slightly depressed detective at the heart of this deeply strange tale. Queasy atmospheric visuals and excellent acting aside though, it can’t do what the novel does, which is take you – via Borlú’s narration – completely inside the really odd society that is Besźel and/or Ul Qoma. A place where areas, streets, even buildings in each city (which lie cheek by jowl) are not ‘seen’ by citizens of the opposite side, the habit of ‘unseeing’ is learned from childhood. If you do see, than Breach will get you – Breach are shadowy types who hide in plain sight. It’s all very strange. Unseeing may on the surface seem easy enough to do, if a bit weird – until you read a car chase in which half the obstacles are supposedly ‘not there’ even though they are.
The novel is fundamentally a detective story with some corruption in the mix. It doesn’t concentrate on Borlú’s quest for his missing wife as the TV adaptation did, but on the murder of the visiting American student. Mainly, I felt, it’s about politics and human attitudes to ‘the other’ and delightfully for me (and possibly a bit niche) the archaeological themes in this were brought to the fore. How archaeological finds are hijacked for a cause – political, cultural, economic. How troublesome this unearthed past can be, once it’s been dug up (Ul Qoma has all the ‘good stuff’, a situation resented greatly by the citizens of Bezel). I loved the part where Mielleville uses term ‘Harris Matrix’ without feeling the need to explain what it is. In the context of The City and The City it could be a real thing, or it could not, it doesn’t really matter.
In the end of course Tyador makes a mistake, and we finally get to meet the shadowy Breach types…but I think you might read this novel to find out more. Even if you think it may be just too weird for you. I found it totally absorbing, and a little like being in a slight fever dream. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did!
…oh, and …
The Mistletoe Bride : Kate Mosse Orion
I read this through one gloriously sunny lazy day which I spent mostly in a hammock. This is not the usual way to read ghost stories I grant you (generally you need a crackling log fire, a glass of port and to be wearing some tweed. I read far too much M.R.James…). However, great spooky stories can spook you whatever the weather. The title tale of the Mistletoe Bride is one I knew from elsewhere, and can be found all over the place. It’s fame doesn’t detract from this telling though, I found myself willing the bride not to get in the chest while all the time knowing she would. Other favourites from this collection were the very disturbing Breton set ‘The Drowned Village’ and ‘The Yellow Scarf’ which takes place at Minster Lovell, a favourite ruin of mine that’s not too far up the A40 from here, which also claims to be one of the many places the legend of the Mistletoe Bride originates. If you are a ghost story addict like me, then I’d recommend this very much.