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Deborah Harkness goes deep with vampires and witches in 'Time's Convert'

Deborah Harkness goes deep with vampires and witches in 'Time's Convert'
Deborah Harkness, author of "Time's Convert." (Scarlett Freund)

Beginning with the 2011 publication of Deborah Harkness’ debut novel, “A Discovery of Witches,” the three novels known as the All Souls Trilogy have sold millions of copies in more than a dozen languages, inspired fan blogs, sites and podcasts, an online book club, a line of jewelry, three All Souls Cons and a long-awaited television series that debuted in the U.K. and Europe this month and is slated to start in the U.S. in early 2019.

At the center of this multimedia maelstrom is the epic story of the hunt for Ashmole 782, a lost manuscript believed to hold the secrets of non-human creatures across two continents and several centuries. Ashmole 782 attracted Diana Bishop, an American historian and nascent witch, and an ancient vampire and scientist named Matthew de Clermont. Over the course of the novels, Diana and Matthew evolved from intellectual adversaries to passionate lovers, defying convention to marry and become the parents of twins. Their far-flung network of family and friends — witches and vampires, daemons and warmbloods (humans) — made this fantastical modern world, as well as 16th century Europe, come alive for readers.

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While the All Souls Trilogy provided an in-depth look at how witches are developed and come into their full power, exploring Diana’s emergence as a formidable witch and weaver of spells, the making and maturation of vampires received short shrift. Sure, readers learned that Matthew was the “maker” of many children through the centuries, but their origin stories were not fully explored, despite sojourns into the world of some of Matthew’s more dangerous progeny.

That changes with “Time’s Convert,” Harkness’ latest novel, which expands the All Souls Universe by providing the backstory of Marcus Whitmore, one of Matthew’s sons. Readers of the All Souls Trilogy may recall the hunky blond who works in Matthew’s Oxford genetics lab that’s attempting to parse the genetic code of creatures. Or that he’s in love with Phoebe Taylor, a warmblood British art historian who works at Sotheby’s, and the pair had announced their intentions to wed in “The Book of Life,” the trilogy’s final installment.

“Time’s Convert” begins about a year later and is told from three perspectives — 24-year-old Phoebe’s present-day transformation, or rebirth, as a vampire in Paris; Marcus’ recollections, from his warmblood youth fighting against the British at Breed’s Hill in 1775 and choice to be reborn in 1781, at age 24, at the hands — or fangs — of Matthew, rather than die of fever; and Diana’s first-person account from Les Revenants, the family’s home in south central France, where, between grading papers and doing her own research, she is busy parenting twin toddlers, Bright Borns who exhibit both vampire and witch proclivities.

Book jacket for "Time's Convert" by Deborah Harkness.
Book jacket for "Time's Convert" by Deborah Harkness. (Viking)

Phoebe has decided to become a vampire not only to be able to wed her lover, Marcus, but to enjoy the “inexhaustible supply of time that vampires possessed,” something the checklist-obsessed young woman had observed watching Marcus’ grandmother Ysabeau: “Nothing was done quickly for the sake of getting through and checking it off one’s endless to-do list. … Ysabeau did not feel that time would run out before she has sucked the essence from whatever experience she was having.” To become a vampire, Phoebe must undergo a ritualistic rebirth, a process described with scientific precision in the novel’s opening chapters. Phoebe’s “maker,” the creature who will give her the gift of rebirth and guide her first 90 days, is Dr. Miriam Shephard, a colleague of Matthew’s in their Oxford laboratory and widow of one of his dearest friends. Miriam tends to Phoebe’s needs as devotedly as any parent, including amusingly procuring the blood of her prey of choice, which will give Harkness’ legions of fans reason to pause.

Marcus is not allowed any contact with Phoebe during this period, so he retreats to Les Revenants, where Diana and Matthew provide a familiar domestic anchor for him, as well as readers of the trilogy. Diana is coming to terms with her own fears about raising children who have a taste for blood and are already casting spells. “I needed to help them find balance,” Diana worries. “Magic needed to be part of their lives but I didn’t want them to grow up thinking of witchcraft as a labor-saving device. Nor did I want them to think of it as a tool of revenge or power to hold over others.” Her children’s infantile powers also bring up painful memories of how Diana’s parents dealt with her own early attempts at magic.

Marcus is also dealing with painful memories: of life in Hadley, Conn., where he was abused by a father emotionally damaged by war; of his time fighting alongside other colonists against the British; and of his early days in New Orleans as a reckless fledgling vampire. While this will be new ground for readers new to the All Soul’s universe, many of Marcus’ memories were covered in earlier works, so this will add little (the unexpected cameo appearance of a character from another writer’s vampire series notwithstanding).

Nonetheless, Harkness brings her keen historian’s eye to the American and French revolutions, drawing parallels between the two periods through not only the vampire witnesses to history but the appearances of historical figures: the Marquis de Lafayette, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine (Paine’s “Common Sense” is Marcus’ favorite book and provides a quote from which the novel takes its title).

But without the quest to find Ashmole 782 that drove the first three books, “Time’s Convert” feels aimless and is susceptible to Harkness’ tendencies to cram her novels full of interesting details of questionable value to the plot and myriad characters who are name-checked but never appear in the flesh. The result is a novel that feels bloated instead of buoyant as it carries a new generation of de Clermont offspring on their own adventures. While “Time’s Convert” may feed the faithful, one hopes later novels in the series try a little harder to win over readers to the otherwise rich and fascinating All Souls Universe.

Woods is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, has written four mysteries and edited several anthologies.

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“Time’s Convert”

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Deborah Harkness

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Viking: 448 pp., $29

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