Friday, December 17, 2010

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Back in 2009, during the Frankfurt book fair, I remember seeing a note on The Bookseller website about a book called A Discovery of Witches.  And I quote:

Headline has fought off competition from five other publishers to acquire the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair's hottest fiction title, The Discovery of 
Witches by Deborah Harkness.

And further more:

The Discovery of Witches is aimed at the adult market and set in a world where four species—vampires, witches, demons and humans—co-exist. A young woman discovers a book in the Bodleian library with strange magical powers, changing her perception of the world around her, so that she can see the other species. Although there is a covenant preventing inter-species relationships, she falls in love with a vampire.

Headline deputy m.d. and publisher Jane Morpeth, who acquired the title, said: "It's just brilliant . . . it will be a major title for us", comparing the style to Anne Rice...

This was enough for me. I couldn't wait to read this new book.  Fast forward to maybe a month ago when this gigantic parcel arrived.  It was a proof copy of A Discovery of Witches.  I remember thinking that it sounded familiar and then of course, I read the PR sheet and went: zomg, this is IT!

I am SO incredibly pleased to be part of the blogtour for this book.  The writing is solid, the premise is cool, the research will blow your mind and the characters are engaging and I missed them and their story when I had to put the book away for work or to sleep.

But here, without further fuss, is my exclusive extract of the book.  My extract is the final extract of this tour, and it is the fourth extract. 

Be sure to visit the following sites for the first three extracts:

1. Book Chick City
2. Floor to Ceiling Shelves
3. Dot Scribbles

Chapter Extract

    The manuscript let out a soft sigh.
    A quick glance over my shoulder assured me that the room was still empty. The only other sound was the loud ticking of the reading room’s clock.
    Deciding not to record ‘Book sighed,’ I turned to my laptop and opened up a new file. This familiar task – one that I’d done hundreds if not thousands of times before – was as comforting as my list’s neat checkmarks. I typed the manuscript name and number and copied the title from the catalog description. I eyed its size and binding, describing both in detail.
    The only thing left to do was open the manuscript.
    It was difficult to lift the cover, despite the loosened clasps, as if it were stuck to the pages below. I swore under my breath and rested my hand flat on the leather for a moment, hoping that Ashmole 782 simply needed a chance to know me. It wasn’t magic, exactly, to put your hand on top of a book. My palm tingled, much as my skin tingled when a witch looked at me, and the tension left the manuscript. After that, it was easy to lift the cover.
    The first page was rough paper. On the second sheet, which was parchment, were the words ‘Anthropologia, or a treatis containing a short description of Man,’ in Ashmole’s handwriting. The neat, round curves were almost as familiar to me as my own cursive script. The second part of the title – ‘in two parts: the first Anatomical, the second Psychological ’ – was written in a later hand, in pencil. It was familiar, too, but I couldn’t place it. Touching the writing might give me some clue, but it was against the library’s rules and it would be impossible to document the information that my fingers might gather. Instead I made notes in the computer file regarding the use of ink and pencil, the two different hands, and the possible dates of the inscriptions.
    As I turned the first page, the parchment felt abnormally heavy and revealed itself as the source of the manuscript’s strange smell. It wasn’t simply ancient. It was something more – a combination of must and musk that had no name. And I noticed immediately that three leaves had been cut neatly out of the binding.
    Here, at last, was something easy to describe. My fingers flew over the keys: ‘At least three folios removed, by straightedge or razor.’ I peered into the valley of the manuscript’s spine but couldn’t tell whether any other pages were missing. The closer the parchment to my nose, the more the manuscript’s power and odd smell distracted me.
    I turned my attention to the illustration that faced the gap where the missing pages should be. It showed a tiny baby girl floating in a clear glass vessel. The baby held a silver rose in one hand, a golden rose in the other. On its feet were tiny wings, and drops of red liquid showered down on the baby’s long black hair. Underneath the image was a label written in thick black ink indicating that it was a depiction of the philosophical child – an allegorical representation of a crucial step in creating the philosopher’s stone, the chemical substance that promised to make its owner healthy, wealthy, and wise.
    The colors were luminous and strikingly well preserved. Artists had once mixed crushed stone and gems into their paints to produce such powerful colors. And the image itself had been drawn by someone with real artistic skill. I had to sit on my hands to keep them from trying to learn more from a touch here and there.
    But the illuminator, for all his obvious talent, had the details all wrong. The glass vessel was supposed to point up, not down. The baby was supposed to be half black and half white, to show that it was a hermaphrodite. It should have had male genitalia and female breasts – or two heads, at the very least.
    Alchemical imagery was allegorical, and notoriously tricky. That’s why I was studying it, searching for patterns that would reveal a systematic, logical approach to chemical transformation in the days before the periodic table of the elements. Images of the moon were almost always representations of silver, for example, while images of the sun referred to gold. When the two were combined chemically, the process was represented as a wedding. In time the pictures had been replaced by words. Those words, in turn, became the grammar of chemistry.
    But this manuscript put my belief in the alchemists’ logic to the test. Each illustration had at least one fundamental flaw, and there was no accompanying text to help make sense of it.
    I searched for something – anything – that would agree with my knowledge of alchemy. In the softening light, faint traces of handwriting appeared on one of the pages. I slanted the desk lamp so that it shone more brightly.
    There was nothing there.
Slowly I turned the page as if it were a fragile leaf.
    Words shimmered and moved across its surface – hundreds of words
– invisible unless the angle of light and the viewer’s perspective were just right.
    I stifled a cry of surprise.
    Ashmole 782 was a palimpsest – a manuscript within a manuscript. When parchment was scarce, scribes carefully washed the ink from old books and then wrote new text on the blank sheets. Over time the former writing often reappeared underneath as a textual ghost, discernible with the help of ultraviolet light, which could see under ink stains and bring faded text back to life.
    There was no ultraviolet light strong enough to reveal these traces, though. This was not an ordinary palimpsest. The writing hadn’t been washed away – it had been hidden with some sort of spell. But why would anyone go to the trouble of bewitching the text in an alchemical book? Even experts had trouble puzzling out the obscure language and fanciful imagery the authors used.
    Dragging my attention from the faint letters that were moving too quickly for me to read, I focused instead on writing a synopsis of the manuscript’s contents. ‘Puzzling,’ I typed. ‘Textual captions from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, images mainly fifteenth century. Image sources possibly older? Mixture of paper and vellum. Colored and black inks, the former of unusually high quality. Illustrations are well executed, but details are incorrect, missing. Depicts the creation of the philosopher’s stone, alchemical birth/ creation, death, resurrection, and transformation. A confused copy of an earlier manuscript? A strange book, full of anomalies.’
    My fingers hesitated above the keys.
    Scholars do one of two things when they discover information that doesn’t fit what they already know. Either they sweep it aside so it doesn’t bring their cherished theories into question or they focus on it with laserlike intensity and try to get to the bottom of the mystery. If this book hadn’t been under a spell, I might have been tempted to do the latter. Because it was bewitched, I was strongly inclined toward the former.
    And when in doubt, scholars usually postpone a decision.
    I typed an ambivalent final line: ‘Needs more time? Possibly recall later? ’
    Holding my breath, I fastened the cover with a gentle tug. Currents of magic still thrummed through the manuscript, especially fierce around the clasps.
    Relieved that it was closed, I stared at Ashmole 782 for a few more moments. My fingers wanted to stray back and touch the brown leather. But this time I resisted, just as I had resisted touching the inscriptions and illustrations to learn more than a human historian could legitimately claim to know.
    Aunt Sarah had always told me that magic was a gift. If it was, it had strings attached that bound me to all the Bishop witches who had come before me. There was a price to be paid for using this inherited magical power and for working the spells and charms that made up the witches’ carefully guarded craft. By opening Ashmole 782, I’d breached the wall that divided my magic from my scholarship. But back on the right side of it again, I was more determined than ever to remain there.
    I packed up my computer and notes and picked up the stack of manuscripts, carefully putting Ashmole 782 on the bottom. Mercifully, Gillian wasn’t at her desk, though her papers were still strewn around. She must be planning on working late and was off for a cup of coffee.
    ‘Finished?’ Sean asked when I reached the call desk.
‘Not quite. I’d like to reserve the top three for Monday.’
    ‘And the fourth?’
    ‘I’m done with it,’ I blurted, pushing the manuscripts toward him. ‘You can send it back to the stacks.’
    Sean put it on top of a pile of returns he had already gathered. He walked with me as far as the staircase, said good-bye, and disappeared behind a swinging door. The conveyor belt that would whisk Ashmole 782 back into the bowels of the library clanged into action.
    I almost turned and stopped him but let it go.
    My hand was raised to push open the door on the ground floor when the air around me constricted, as if the library were squeezing me tight. The air shimmered for a split second, just as the pages of the manuscript had shimmered on Sean’s desk, causing me to shiver involuntarily and raising the tiny hairs on my arms.
    Something had just happened. Something magical.
    My face turned back toward Duke Humfrey’s, and my feet threatened to follow.
    It’s nothing, I thought, resolutely walking out of the library.
Are you sure? whispered a long-ignored voice.


Isn't it fab?  A Discovery of Witches is out in Feb 2011. I'll be posting a few other things in the next few weeks. 

But in the meantime, there is a competition!

I can offer 3 signed copies of the finished A Discovery of Witches.  And then the BIG prize: 

An opportunity for one lucky winner to travel to either London or Oxford to meet the author Deborah Harkness, for a cup of tea and a bit of chat.  You'll get a signed copy and a bottle of wine, as recommended by the author.  Headline will pay travel expenses only - no overnight accommodation, should you win.  Which I think is a pretty fabulous prize.  The prize will be for either Monday 7th / Tuesday 8th / Wednesday 9th March.

The competiton is open to UK residents only and you will have to be over 18 to win.  The competition will run until end of January 2011.  A winner will be chosen from each of the blogs taking part in this blog tour.  The winner's name will then be sent to Headline's offices and the overall winner of the meet and greet with the author will be announced.  All four of us will be doing the announcement so it's unlikely that you'll miss it if you've won. 

Leave a comment below to enter for either of the two prizes (book / author meet and greet) and tell us about your favourite city in the world.  Just out of curiosity.  The 3 winners of a copy of the book will be announced at the end of January on MFB. 

To find out more about The Discovery of Witches go to the UK site and do visit Deborah's website here.


SusanKMann said...

I'm reading this book just now I love it. And how amazing would it be to meet Deborah Harkness. My favourite city is Edinburgh, I love the different people and site and mostly the Castle. x

natalie23 said...

I would love to win a copy of the book. My favourite city is Venice, I have never been but would love to go someday. I am fascinated by the idea of a city built on water.

Cherry said...

It is highly unlikely that I would be able to join that author meet & greet event even if I win because I work Mon-Fri. But would love to read the book! Please count me in!!

I do not have any favourite cities. I generally don't like cities. I prefer the rural settings. Maybe that is why I live in the middle of nowhere in a Welsh valley, eh?! But, if pressed hard, I would say I like Cardiff. Because despite it being a capital city, it has somehow managed to retain a laid-back charm. And life their does not seem to be as hectic compared to other cities I've been.

Re-posted your contest at:

Cherry Mischievous
cherrymischif-warrior [at] yahoo [dot] com

Thomas Taylor said...

This does sound good, but at the same time, I can't help thinking, 'vampires and demons? Again?'

ImageNations said...

I know I am out of the competition but I write to say thanks for giving me a sneak preview into this book.

Carmen Wing said...

I must admit I don't have a favourite city though the one I MOST want to visit is New Orleans and of coourse - you can blame Anne Rice for that.

Love the sound of this book, you lucky thing :)

Fi said...

Really looking forward to reading this book and would love to meet the author!

My favourite city is tied between London & New York, one I've lived in and the other I would love to live in!

Unknown said...

The book sounds fantastic. My 40th birthday is the 7th of MArch so that would be an incredible birthday present. Thanks guys:D

Unknown said...

I forgot to say about favourite City. I havent traveled that much, big cities kinda freak me out as there are so many people.
Edinburgh is lovely, I like old architecture. Parts of Cardiff are stunning. Bits of London and I have been to Frankfurt which is also pretty :D

Linda said...

I'd love a copy of this book: it sounds gripping. That's the great thing about sites like yours: they lead you to books you might not have come across otherwise. (Sorry if that sounds gushy!)

Favourite city? It's Paris for me. My starry-eyed younger self used to wander along the Seine, browsing for hours at the bouquinistes' stalls, catching magical rays of sunlight in Sainte-Chapelle and (well, youth has a hearty appetite!) eating the most scrumptious croque-messieurs from a little trolley on the Boul' Mich.

I'm scared to go back in case my dreams get shattered.

Karen C said...

This sounds excellent! Heading over to goodreads now to get it on my list

Mieneke van der Salm said...

This chapter is completely captivating! I want more!!

I can't be entered for the prizes, since I'm not a UK resident, but wanted to share my fav city anyway :)
It's London! I've been there 3 times, once in secondary school, once while at university and for our honeymoon. And I can't wait to go back. I just love it, I love its history, its life and Charing Cross Road :D

Unknown said...

The book conservator in me is itching to get my hands on this! (As is the geeky reader. :¬D)

My favourite city would have to be Bangkok in Thailand. The food and the night markets there are amazing.

Unknown said...

I'd love to win a copy of the book! My favourite city in the world has to be in London, but perhaps in 1664 instead of the present day!