I’m never 100% sure how to start my recaps. Basically, these books are terrible but the opening is mostly… fine. I’ll try to guide you quickly through the majority of this chapter, taking time to pause on the truly ridiculous elements. But hopefully you’ll glean some concept of the overall plot and characters as we go. And if you don’t… you can always read along. If you dare.
To start, let’s do a quick background on the author. Deborah Harkness is a professor of history at an American university. She was born on the east coast of the United States. She also (I mention this for… no particular reason) was on the rowing team in college, had panic attacks and fainting spells, focuses on 16th century British history, studied at Oxford during her graduate degree, loves horses, and enjoys toast and tea. Oh, and one time she was in an academic library and called up a book no one had seen for about 200 years.* Again, no real reason to mention these things.
Let’s crack on.
The book opens with the same cryptic three-line prologue as the show:
It begins with absence and desire.
It begins with blood and fear.
It begins with a discovery of witches.
What does it mean? Truly, no one knows. Not to spoil too much, but this will be a theme throughout these novels.
Our story opens with Diana Bishop, a 32 year old American historian born and raised in upstate New York. She specializes in 17th Century British history. She loves rowing, horses, toast and tea. Oh, and she did part of her grad degree at Oxford.
Does she get panic attacks, experience fainting spells, and is she about to call up a book no one has seen for 200 years? Why, reader, you’ll just have to wait and see.
We find Diana sitting in the Duke Humphrey Reading Room (Oxford, darling, naturally) on the first night of Mabon (late September, for you Muggles) looking at a leather book. Is this an ordinary leather book?
It is not.
“To an ordinary historian, it would have looked no different from hundreds of other manuscripts in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, ancient and worn. But I knew there was something odd about it from the moment I collected it.”
You see, Diana’s not like other girls. She’s a witch.
But enough about that.
Within the space of two paragraphs, we flash back from Diana holding the book to the moment (5 minutes earlier) when the librarian handed it to her. The purpose of this flashback is to establish a very important plot point: everybody, and I mean everybody, is hot for Diana.
Diana knows that Sean, the self-same librarian, has a crush on her because he’s cheekily letting her take out more books than he should (that rogue). We’re then treated to a bit of further exposition, explaining that she and Sean used to frequently get drinks together at a nearby pub during her grad degree. It is unclear whether these counted as dates (to Diana, at least), or whether they slept together.
You’ll be shocked to hear that it doesn’t matter anyway.
The important thing to remember is: everyone is hot for
Sookie. Sorry, Diana. I meant Diana of course.
As Sean is coquettishly letting Diana take out too many books, he mentions (in an offhand way, real casual) that there’s one more book for her. And here’s something odd… it hasn’t been called up in a while. 200 years perhaps?!?!?! Who’s to say.
Immediately, Diana begins to hear strange whispering. Sean cannot hear these whispers. She also sees a faint gold shimmer coming out of the book, which then gives her a strange prickling sensation as she picks it up. These things do not happen to Sean.
So now we’ve (finally!) found out how Diana got the book all those (one) pages ago. Next, we’re treated to an in-depth explanation of how she got from the call desk back to her seat. Tense stuff.
On the way, she describes the entire library to you. This is just the beginning of a bigger issue for the books, which is that the author thinks it’s very very important to tell you as much detail as possible about everything except the plot.
I walked quickly through the original, fifteenth-century part of the library, past the rows of Elizabethan reading desks with their three ascending bookshelves and scarred writing surfaces. Between them, Gothic windows directed the reader’s attention up to the coffered ceilings, where bright paint and gilding picked out the details of the university’s crest of three crowns and open book where its motto “God is my illumination” was proclaimed repeatedly from on high.
It’s not so much that this is a crazy amount of description, it’s that the author takes no pains to make it matter. We’re not told whether this is impressive to Diana, whether she ignores these now-familiar sights, whether she takes some kind of special meaning in any of this… it’s just described because that’s what this room really looks like in real life. Which is something I could… Google for myself.
Plus, again, let me remind you: this is an entire paragraph establishes that Diana is walking back to her desk so she can open a book.
Please. Please just get back to the book.
She does not.
Next thing we know, we’re introduced to Gillian Chamberlain, a fellow American academic. Diana speeds past her, but that Gillian (that bitch) stops her.
Gillian is also a witch. When witches look at Diana, her skin tingles. Diana explains that Gillian (that bitch) is always trying to force her to come hang out with other witches. And since it’s Mabon (a Wiccan holiday, which the author is choosing to make synonymous with actual witchcraft — a choice!), Gillian (a bitch!) wants to know if Diana can come for dinner.
Diana says no, Gillian (bitchily) looks at her with “prim disapproval”. In all this time, we (the audience) are given no reason why someone inviting our lead character out for a meal is threatening and/or rude.
And if you’re getting “Bella hating the ‘other girls’ in Twilight” vibes from this chapter… just you wait.
Diana tells Gillian that she needs to work on a conference paper, while informing us (the reader) that witches can tell when another witch lies to them. This, along with the tingly skin, is the first hint at the author’s unique fantasy world building. And no, it’s not going to matter much.
Now finally — finally! — we are back at the reading desk, with the book. Diana explains to us that this book, called Ashmole 782, is one of the books that once belonged to Elias Ashmole, a book collector and 17th century alchemist. Hence, you know, the name.
Diana reaches for the book. She gets a shock. A literal one. And then:
These sensations quickly receded, but they left behind a hollow feeling of unmet desire.
Like in the cryptic intro! It won’t matter!
Naturally, having finally gotten around to picking up the book, Diana…
Stands up and moves away from it.
And man, I hope you’re strapped in and ready for excitement, because instead of getting back to this godforsaken book, we’re going to be plunged headfirst into a whole bunch of backstory all about Diana (of course).
But that’s next time. Join me again, won’t you?
As always, yell at me in the comments below.
*Information supplied by the author herself, in various interviews and fan Q&As.