Yesterday I posted a brief sort-of-review of Deborah Harkness' debut novel A Discovery of Witches that adhered pretty closely to my standard for such things: no more than 450 words or so, no spoilers, and at least one semi-atrocious pun. What I didn't tell you — because I didn't think it was appropriate for a book review, which is not supposed to be about the reviewer — was the serious emotional impact it had on me. The reading took four late-night sessions, and two of those nights were more sleepless than usual. This is, of course, hardly the fault of the author: she can assume no responsibility for the actions, however inexplicable, of her readers. I finished the book on Wednesday night; wrote the review Thursday evening, making a point of not mentioning my mental state; and then left the text in draft status for one more night, so I could at least tell myself that I hadn't rushed into things. But the feelings kept trying to force their way into the foreground, and finally I decided to put them down here, where they're not formally connected to the review.

The point at which I started to lose it was in Chapter 14:

"Magic is desire made real. It's how I pulled down Notes and Queries the night we met," I said slowly. "When a witch concentrates on something she wants, and then imagines how she might get it, she can make it happen. That's why I have to be so careful about my work." I took a sip of wine, my hand trembling on the glass.

"Then you spend most of your time trying not to want things, just like me. For some of the same reasons, too."

I am — probably always have been — deeply distrustful of desire, especially when it's mine. More than once it's led me astray. And indeed I spend a great deal of time "trying not to want things"; in the romantic realm generally, I can't even imagine anymore. Finding this blatant statement of my own somewhat-questionable principles somehow immediately bound me to these two characters and their (I assumed) separate fates. For the next four hundred pages, it wasn't a story anymore: it was a trip through my own head, told by two people I did not yet know. This is even more disconcerting than you think it is.

And I must admit to an unwarranted, not to say unmanly or anything, interest in old-fashioned romance. I know not where this interest came from. We did a reading of Romeo and Juliet when I was in high school; it should surprise no one that I drew the role of Mercutio, the resident smartass, who is sliced and diced by Tybalt, despite Romeo's best efforts, early in Act III. (He goes out with a pun — "Ask for me tomorrow, and you will find me a grave man" — and dammit, when you get right down to it, there are worse ways to go.) It's a sort of Ronald Reagan role: not the hero, but the hero's best friend. And if he ever gets the girl, it's offstage; but somehow you doubt that he ever will. (Did I doubt that I ever will? What do you think?)

You should know that my readings are seldom silent: a passage I find particularly interesting, I will read out loud, just to hear it, and maybe to help determine if my reaction was appropriate. Often it's motivated by "Damn, I wish I'd said that," and somehow this bit from Chapter 22 got read three times:

"Why do vampires have such a strange attitude toward time?" I mused aloud, still caught in a bewildering mix of past and present. The word "love" had sent feelings of possessiveness thtough me, however, drawing me to the here and now. "Witches don't have centuries to fall in love. We do it quickly. Sarah says my mother fell in love with my father the moment she saw him. I've loved you since I decided not to hit you with an oar on the City of Oxford's dock."

Even if those particular circumstances are never to be duplicated, and I'm pretty sure they aren't, that last line sounds so much like me — or so much like I think I sound — it's scary.

And then this, near, but not too near, the end:

"Don't ever ask me to leave you when you're in danger," I said fiercely. "I won't do it."

I've got your back. Less fiercely, it's Ruth: "Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee, for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God." Whatever the fierceness level, though, it wasn't enough to keep the old "I'm going to die alone" fear from rushing back into my head: nobody, at least in this life, has my back.

But magic is in the heart as well as in the mind, and I pressed onward. It would be another half-hour before I finished the book, and another hour before I actually fell asleep. Somewhere in those last sixty minutes, I decided I was satisfied with the ending, despite, or maybe because of, the obvious setup for Book II, and if I dreamed that night, I don't remember it. Which is a good thing, because if I did, you'd be reading it here.

The Vent

  1 October 2011

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