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The Siren's Call: The power of books, the power within

ScienceLondon (England)EnglandArts and CultureHistoryVampires (supernatural entitiess)

There's something inspiring for old-fashioned book lovers out there about an early scene in Deborah Harkness' novel "A Discovery of Witches" (Viking: 579 pp., $28.95). Magical creatures suddenly gather as a woman opens a legendary lost book.

Never mind that most of these creatures — vampires, daemons, witches — are all plotting to get the book out of the hands of Diana, an American professor on a research trip in England. Menace aside, the scene is almost an hommage to the printed word: There's far more magic in an old book than in an iPad no matter how good the latter's backlighting is.

"My fingers trembled when I loosened the small brass clasps…," Diana says. "The manuscript let out a soft sigh."

Diana isn't just a gifted scholar of the arcane — she's a descendant of the Bishops, a powerful family of witches. Their power flows through her effortlessly — all it takes, she says, is "a flick of my wrist and a word to the wind" — but she's trying to live as ordinary humans do. She's on a magic diet.

But Diana can't help it when this old alchemical text, known as Ashmole 782 — named for its 16th century owner, Elias Ashmole — responds to her touch. A spell that has been protecting it — from who? — suddenly weakens, and strange beings cluster like greedy wolves smelling spilled blood.

"A Discovery of Witches" — like another recent Viking title, last year's "Angelology" — is a debut novel with a big supernatural canvas and a decidedly feminine point of view. Rather than fix on a ghostly secret in some out of the way place, its ambitions are world-sized, ranging across history and zeroing in on DNA, human and otherwordly. Age-old tensions between science and magic and between evolution and alchemy erupt as Diana seeks to unlock the secrets of Ashmole 782.

In her search, Diana has unexpected company. As she examines the book, in Oxford's venerable Bodleian Library, she realizes that she is being watched:

"It was his feral combination of strength, agility, and keen intelligence that was palpable across the room. In his black trousers and soft gray sweater, with a shock of black hair swept back from his forehead and cropped close to the nape of his neck, he looked like a panther that could strike at any moment but was in no rush to do so.…

"He smiled. It was a small, polite smile that didn't reveal his teeth. I was intensely aware of them anyway, sitting in perfectly straight, sharp rows behind his pale lips."

Can I just say how difficult it is for a guy to read this stuff?

Why do vamps always have the look and fashion sense of a GQ model? Is there no such thing as a homely vampire?

It's no coincidence that this 1,500-year-old vampire, named Matthew Clairmont, happens to be in the Bodleian. He's a successful scientist who's doing research (in Harkness' story, immortality enables vamps to take a long view of scientific advances). He's there to follow Diana, but we don't know until much later who asked him to watch over her or why.

The book's pace is leisurely — often a little too leisurely — as Diana and Matthew circle each other, moving from suspicion to trust. Their growing relationship plays out against several unsettling murders in London and encounters with Matthew's fierce maman and a formidable witch assassin. Two shadowy groups, the Knights of Lazarus and the Congregation, also loom. No doubt they'll have bigger roles in the next two books of Harkness' projected trilogy.

A professor of history at USC, Harkness has delved into the magical realm before (in nonfiction, her books include "John Dee's Communications with Angels") as well as the world more firmly grounded in the historical past ("The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution"). The world she has created in her first novel is an entertaining one, a place in which humans, witches, daemons and vampires peacefully coexist (well, most of the time) and even practice yoga together, as Diana discovers.

Sometimes the author's effort to evoke this world falls flat — characters give off exotic aromas like they just stepped out of a goth Bath & Body Works. At other times, there are nice variations on familiar themes. Matthew's immortal life hasn't just made him a good scientist: He's one heck of a wine collector. Talk about prize vintages! And vamps have heartbeats and can sample food although, as Matthew explains, "food tastes wrong to a vampire once it's been cooked to death."

On the matter of a mysterious book, though, Harkness stays true to the way books have been used in other tales of gothic adventure. Like the dragon book in Elizabeth Kostova's "The Historian," Ashmole 782 remains enigmatic, a symbol of knowledge as forbidden as an apple in Eden. The book shimmers under Diana's gaze, reminding us of an old lesson about the power of books that never goes out of style.

"A little book can hold a big secret," the witch Agatha tells Diana, "one that might change the world."

The power of books: Another ancient, world-changing tome is the subject of "The Occultist" (Dark Horse Comics: $3.50). Conceived by Tim Seeley and Dark Horse's president, Mike Richardson, the story follows a young college student named Rob Bailey who's unlucky in just about every relationship except for his friendship with Jacob Elder, the grandfatherly owner of the bookstore where Rob works.

Rob accidentally unleashes — and absorbs — the occult powers in a strange book that Elder has obtained for an anonymous client. Rob's accident happens just in time, as three demonic henchmen arrive at the store to steal the book. Rob seems destined for a grisly death at the end of their deadly talons but, well, this young fellow now has vast magical powers and a glowing right hand. The book whispers to him, calling him "Occultist" and "the sword." Readers of the comic book — not to mention those unfortunate henchmen — soon discover why those names apply to him. The book of magic at the center of this story could be a cousin — a pyrotechnic one — to Ashmole 782 in Harkness' novel.

Although the cover is stamped as a "one-shot," the story ends on a cliffhanger. A group of "hit mages" are gathering to finish the job that those three demons failed to do. The issue also leaves readers with some questions: Is Rob free to shed this newfound power if he wants to? Or is this magic book some kind of parasite that needs a host? Dark Horse has promised more installments this year to answer those questions and, if you're already familiar with DH, you know that they'll make good on that promise.

If only I didn't need to sleep: Ben Bova has always looked far ahead in his sci-fi novels, to a time when humanity has finally decided to colonize the solar system and beyond no matter what the financial cost. His Grand Tour series continues with "Leviathans of Jupiter" (Tor: 477 pp., $27.99), which imagines another expedition to Jupiter to study the giant creatures, drifting like jellyfish, in the planet's oceans. The book's opening is tantalizing: "Enormous creatures, as big as cities, cruise through those raging currents as easily as a lad poling a raft along a quiet stream."

If only I had more time to read. If only I didn't need to sleep.

From time to time, this column will highlight books you'd like to examine if other things didn't get in the way, like sleep or a job. Also in this category is "Heresy: An Elizabethan Thriller" by S.J. Parris, which imagines the adventures of Dominican friar Giordano Bruno — the real Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for heresy — on a secret mission to Queen Elizabeth's England. If you missed this novel when it appeared as a hardcover last year, now's your chance: Anchor has just released it in paperback.

Owchar is deputy book editor of The Times. The Siren's Call appears monthly at http://www.latimes.com/books.

nick.owchar@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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