“SHADOW OF NIGHT.” By Deborah Harkness. Viking Books. $28.95.
The ingredients for an enthralling historical fantasy can be deceptively simple: All you need are Elizabethan England, magic and witches. Add to this heady draught a liberal infusion of vampires and daemons, spice with a bit of romance and a dash of time travel — just to kick up the action a notch — and one’s imagination reels with the possibilities. Or at least it should, because Deborah Harkness’ “Shadow of Night” can show you just how potent such an alchemy can be in the hands of a skilled storyteller.
Only a year and a half after her New York Times bestselling debut, “A Discovery of Witches,” Harkness welcomes readers back to the world of Diana Bishop, a witch who can walk through time but can’t conjure flame to a candle, and Matthew de Claremont, the centuries-old vampire recently made Diana’s husband, in flagrant contravention of an ancient ban on such unions. “Shadow of Night” picks up moments after the cliff-hanger ending of the earlier book, with Diana and Matthew fleeing into the past to escape witches who believe Diana is the key to recovering lost and powerful knowledge, and who want Diana under their control — or dead. Expecting to be safe in the England of 1590, where Matthew had power, influence and allies, the two find that they have only exchanged one set of dangers for another.
A magic peculiar to the best teachers is the ability to take a handful of dry, often mundane facts and weave them into a vibrant tapestry that captivates students, providing context that enhances the known without obscuring it. A University of California history professor whose specialty is the history of science and medicine, Harkness exudes her own style of that magic in making the world of late 16th century England come alive. She plays off of her own experiences (discovering a lost book, one of Elizabethan scientist John Dee’s alchemical texts, at the Bodleian Library at Oxford) and the tantalizing imagery in literature of the period (Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour Lost” and George Chapman’s poem “The Shadow of Night”). She surrounds her protagonists with a fascinating concoction of truths, suppositions and plausible fictions and a host of genuine Elizabethan figures (including Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe and Henry Percy), painting a picture as strange and wondrous to the modern reader as any stories featuring fairies, elves and hobgoblins.
But don’t think for a moment that “Shadow of Night” is all atmosphere and no action. Diana and Matthew may have escaped their modern pursuers, but danger is everywhere and every when. Despite all of Diana’s education and scholarly acumen, she is woefully unprepared for the past. As inconspicuous as a neon sign in an age without electricity, Diana also has a talent for stumbling into trouble, leaving an exasperated Matthew to observe, “You wouldn’t recognize danger if it came to you with an engraved invitation.”
Enchanting, engrossing and as impossible to put down as its predecessor, “Shadow of Night” is a perfect blend of fantasy, history and romance. Its single greatest flaw is, after almost 600 pages, it’s over. If you’ve already read and enjoyed “A Discovery of Witches,” picking up “Shadow of Night” is an absolute requirement. Otherwise, pick up both, and consider your summer reading list complete.