A real event inspired history professor Deborah Harkness to write “A Discovery of Witches,” one of the most entertaining books I've read in a long time.
In 1994 while doing research at Oxford University’s Bodleian library, Harkness discovered a “lost” book.
“I discovered ... a manuscript owned by Queen Elizabeth's astrologer, a mathematician and alchemist named John Dee,” Harkness said in a press release. “No one had ever been able to find it, even though many of Dee's other books survive in libraries throughout the world. ... As with most discoveries, finding this ‘lost’ manuscript was entirely accidental.”
Harkness put her experience at Oxford to good use.
At the beginning of her debut novel, Harkness’ hero, history professor Diana Bishop, knee deep in research at the Bodleian, checks out a rare manuscript called “Ashmole 782,” but her finding is far from ordinary – it’s enchanted.
Once the book lands in Diana’s hands, all hell breaks loose because she is so much more than a staid Yale history professor.
She’s a reluctant witch, the last in a long, storied line of sorceresses that can trace their history back to Bridget Bishop, who was executed during the Salem witch hunts.
Her parents, both powerful witches, were killed when Diana was seven.
She grew up living in the upstate New York town of Madison, where “the Bishops worked hard to demonstrate how useful it could be to have witchy neighbors for healing the sick and predicting the weather.”
Rather than going into the family business, Diana has diligently worked to earn a reputation as an academician, and she’s almost pulled it off – save the ever-present kinetic energy that compels her to exercise excessively and the odd way her fingertips tingle and shoot off sparks when she’s provoked.
According to Harkness, three categories of creatures exist alongside humans – daemons, witches and vampires.
“I wanted to create a whole world with its own logic and order,” Harkness writes of her debut into the world of fiction. “Vampires and witches can’t be the only strange creatures sharing the world with humans. I drew on Greek mythology for inspiration and added daemons into the mix. Daemons were believed to be half-mortal and half-divine creatures who guided humans, much like the Roman genius. They were thought to be emotionally volatile and creative, and prone to torment and deception. ... Historically speaking, I imagine the ranks of daemons included all the passionate, tormented, unusual misfits who created great works of art and literature and caused trouble while they did so. Mozart and Michelangelo come immediately to mind.”
While working in the library, Diana is being watched with utmost interest by fellow witches, a few daemons and a very handsome vampire.She describes how it feels to be under the microscope:
“I had been seen, and not by an ordinary human observer.
“When a daemon takes a look, I feel the slight unnerving pressure of a kiss.
“But when a vampire stares, it feels cold, focused and dangerous.”
The vampire in question is Matthew Clairmont, an Oxford scientist researching the peculiar DNA of daemons, witches and vampires.
“The most unnerving thing about him was not his physical perfection. It was his feral combination of strength, agility and keen intelligence that was palpable across the room ... he looked like a panther that could strike at any moment but was in no rush to do so ...”And, so the story of a witch and a vampire who join forces to uncover the mystery of “Ashmole 782” unfolds ...
It begins with blood and fear
It begins with a discovery of witches
What follows is the most fun I’ve had reading a book since “The Eight,” Katherine Neville’s 1988 novel about Charlemange’s magical chess set.
Think “Twilight” for grownups.
Harkness brings a historian’s curiosity to the table, along with a lot of writing experience. During her academic career, she received Fulbright, Guggenheim and National Humanities Center fellowships. Along with a long list of scholarly publications, she writes an award-winning wine blog.
“It was a challenge in some ways, but I've never been happier than when writing ‘A Discovery of Witches,’” said Harkness. “The challenge for a historian, especially when covering subjects we know a lot about, is to remember to keep the story and the characters front and center.
“In my historical work, I'm expected to include everything I know about a given subject down to the last detail. In a work of fiction, you can lose the plot pretty quickly if you take this approach.
“That said, I couldn't shut off my historian's voice completely, and the 25 years I've spent researching and teaching the history of science certainly informed what I wrote and the stories I could tell about magic, alchemy, and evolution. Being steeped in the literature of alchemy was crucial to the story of ‘Ashmole 782’ and why Diana and Matthew would be interested in its discovery.”
“A Discovery of Witches” is full of history, wine, an off-beat love story and a pitched battle for the survival of supernatural creatures.
The night after I finished it, I started re-reading the 579-page story. It’s that much fun.
There’s some good news and bad news here.
The good news is “A Discovery of Witches” is the first in a series of three stories centered on Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont.
The bad news is we have to wait until sometime next year for the second installment.
At the end of this book, Diana and Matthew “time walk” away from Madison to escape the fury of the Congregation, three daemons, three witches and three vampires who are totally against the romance between them, and who are determined to tap into Diana’s power and to learn the secrets held in “Ashmole 782.”
During my two passes through the book, I kept thinking about who would play the main characters in the film ... of course, there's going to be a film .... and it's going to be a blockbuster. Probably not as big as the "Twilight" franchise, but it will find an audience.
There's no doubt in my mind - and others on the book's FaceBook page agree - that Gilles Marini should play Matthew - for a lot of reasons. He's tall, dark and handsome. He looks 37ish. We know he can dance (He should have won "Dancing with the Stars" a couple of seasons back, but they gave it to the little bouncing gymnast.) And ... he's already French!
As for Diana ... she's not a conventional beauty. Her nose is too long and her chin is too prominent. Her hair is unruly. My choice for her is Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep's daughter. She also looks like she could be a history professor.
Selma Blair should play Miriam, the compact vampire who is Matthew's research assistant.
Chase Crawford has the perfect blonde, surfer dude looks to play Marcus, Matthew's young protege.
As for Diana's aunt, I think Meryl Streep should play Sarah Bishop. She'd be a director's dream ... and there's that serious family resemblance.
Sarah's partner, Em, should be played by Susan Sarandon. She's at just the right age to play the part of a witch who faces challenges to everything she's ever believed about her world.
I'm still searching for the perfect Ysabeau (Matthew's mother) and Marthe (the housekeeper) at Sept-Tours, Matthew's ancestral home.
At the moment, I'm thinking Catherine Deneuve would make an excellent Ysabeau ...
And Elizabeth Spriggs (Mrs. Jennings in "Sense and Sensibility and one of the characters in a painting in "Harry Potter") for Marthe.
I'll guess we'll have to wait to see what Hollywood actually does with the film.
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