September Picks of the Month: A Discovery of Witches and The Last Witch of Langenburg
Perhaps vampires and witches have been in popular culture for a long time, but they seem to be front and center in fiction these days. The joke on the street to literary fiction writers is that if you want folks to read your book, just add a vampire, witch, or, if desperate, a werewolf. I don’t know if I entirely agree with this notion – zombies did not improve Jane Austen, for example – but there does seem to be something sustainably tantalizing about supernatural creatures. Because I just read Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches and really liked it, and because everyone appears to be unable to resist a good witch/vampire tale, regardless of time of year, I decided to move forward with this novel as my first pick of the month. When I finally lit upon Thomas Robisheaux's The Last Witch of Langenburg as a good companion pick, I thought I would have to recommend both now. (No, I did not want to wait a month and have a witch/vampire novel be my pick for October. First of all, that’s to be expected (right?), and I occasionally like to be contrary.J)
A Discovery of Witches' Diana Bishop is descended from a long line of powerful witches, but she decided as a child to turn away from her heritage and live as a normal person. She excels in academics and soon becomes a professor of the history of science. During routine research in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, she comes across an ancient book about alchemy, a topic of great interest to her. She notes an odd quality about the book, but, finding nothing of consequence or relevance to her research, she returns the book to the stacks. Unbeknownst to her, this book has been under a powerful spell for centuries and believed lost. Her unwitting discovery of this tome has tipped a delicately balanced world of damens, witches, vampires, and humans off center. No one should have been able to call that book, certainly not an untrained witch who has turned her back on her powers. As Diana begins to realize the consequences of her unconscious action, she begins to uncover the secrets of her past - a past hiding the truth about her dead parents - and the source of her intense powers. Against the rules of her kind, she has allied herself with Matthew Clairmont, a beautiful vampire who has searched for years for the lost book. Is he falling in love with Diana because he can't resist her or because it is the only means through which he can find the sacred alchemy book, a text that purports to explain why vampires are vampires, witches witches, and the history of supernatural power?
Harkness spins a masterful tale, one that - at over 500 pages - does not lag once. This book has a bit of everything: science, history, romance, suspense, and mystery. It is also the beginning of a planned trilogy, so be prepared for the massive cliffhanger at the end. In my humble opinion, this is the novel that Twilight/Harry Potter - reading adults out there have been waiting for. This is not a book that would be popular with the tweens who fell for these series, and that's to this book's credit.
There are a variety of books to pair with A Discovery of Witches, but I decided to take a different route for the companion pick. Of course, I could have chosen an Anne Rice or another novel, but Thomas Robisheaux's The Last Witch of Langenburg is factual history, a nonfiction book that investigates the intersection of superstition and science to assess the ways in which misconceptions and a specific belief system can create - what appears to be - the actual presence of witches. I like to think that if Diana Bishop's academic work were made available, it would be something like The Last Witch of Langenburg.
It is 1672, decades into the Enlightenment, yet deep suspicions that witches ruin people's lives thrive in the small German town of Langenburg. When Anna Fessler dies shortly after consuming a holiday cake made by a neighbor rumored to be a witch, hysteria seizes the small village. Shouts of witchcraft are heard, people hide behind closed doors, and the assumption that Anna Schmeig, the miller's wife, is a real witch intent upon wreaking havoc takes over the town. In the history of witch trials, this is scenario is not unique, but what does make this trial intriguing , is that it is the last witch hunt in Europe and it was the first witch trial to use autopsy reports and other "reasonable" tools of the law to determine the accused's guilt. What results is a fascinating dissection of how reality and the mystical clash, how science can be skewed to resemble magic, and how reasonable people brought up in the dichotomous world of God and the devil can misread factual evidence and believe that witchcraft exists. This is a fascinating book: well-researched, paced like page-turning fiction, and an insightful look into how an actual belief in witchcraft shaped a community.