Time’s Convert by Deborah Harkness

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Reviewed by Harriet

Deborah Harkness Times Convert

Have you ever wondered how the children of a witch and a vampire might turn out? Well, wonder no longer as you can now see them in the persons of Becca and Philip, the two year old twins of Diana Bishop and her husband Matthew Clermont. No idea what I’m talking about? You obviously haven’t read Harkness’s ‘All Souls Trilogy’. Starting in 2011 with A Discovery of Witches, and continuing through Shadow of Night (2012) and The Book of Life (2014), these three mega volumes followed the story of Diana and Matthew through centuries of adventures – enjoyable romps, perhaps, but backed up by what seems to me to be pretty sound historical research – Harkness is a history scholar and teaches at the University of Southern California. Briefly, in the first volume, Diana is in Oxford. She’s had a conventional upbringing in New England and has no idea that she is in fact a witch. All this changes when she starts to do research in the Bodleian Library, and inadvertently calls up an ancient enchanted manuscript. This not only forces her to recognise and learn to use her own powers but also attracts unwelcome attention from the magical beings who live unrecognised among humans and include other witches, daemons and vampires. One such is the gorgeous Matthew, a geneticist and Oxford professor but also a centuries old vampire. Despite the traditional lack of affinity between these two species, the two fall in love and… well you’ll have to read the books to see what happens.

Although the trilogy ended in 2014, many of its characters reappear in Time’s Convert. The main focus of the novel, however, is Marcus Wilmore. Although appearing like a young man in his twenties, Marcus was actually born in 1757, in a small town in western Massachusetts, to a loving mother and a rough and violent father. At the age of eighteen he ran away from home and joined the revolutionary war, where he discovered he had a talent for healing. Home again, filled with revolutionary zeal, he bought himself a copy of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, learned to inoculate people against smallpox, and was forced to run away from home after a serious incident with a shotgun. He joined the army medical corps and soon had as much knowledge as a trained doctor. And he met the mysterious Matthew Clermont who, when Marcus was terminally ill, saved him by making him into a vampire, a process which involves the ‘father’ draining the blood of his ‘child’ and replacing it with blood of his own. This exchange is dangerous and doesn’t always work, but in Marcus’s case it resulted in a full recovery, and no possibility of future illnesses. It also means no more eating, and no more sleeping. And no more dying, of course, except that this proves to be a bit of a myth in that apparently vampires can be killed, and not just with a stake in their hearts.

In the novel, we learn all these facts – and many more – about Marcus by means of a sort of loose framing device. Before the story begins, Marcus has fallen in love with a beautiful girl called Phoebe, and she has decided that the best way for the two of them to spend the rest of their lives together is for her to become a vampire too. So we witness Phoebe’s transformation, at the hands of a kind and wise ‘mother’ named Miriam. But one of the requirements of the process is that Phoebe and Marcus are to be kept apart for ninety days, to allow Phoebe to mature and grow comfortable with her new condition. Thus Phoebe and Miriam are in Paris and Marcus is staying with Matthew and Diana and the twins in the Clermont family chateau elsewhere in France. The two lovers are desperately longing to be together, but their respective families determinedly keep them apart. To keep Marcus from going mad with frustration and restlessness, and to expunge whatever guilt remains lurking from the past, Diana gets him to tell her the story of his life. The chapters alternate between Phoebe’s difficulties with adjusting to vampire life, the family life of the Clermonts, and the history of the past two-hundred years of American, and later French, life and politics told from the perspective of a long-lived observer. Harkness’s historical expertise stands her in good stead here – the 18th century is not her period, but once a researcher always a researcher, and I get the sense that she had fun delving into the American and French revolutions. But maybe fun is not the right word, as much that is dark and disturbing happens in these violent and frightening conflicts.

Light relief is at hand, however, both in the account of Phoebe’s transformation and in the continuing story of Diana and Matthew’s home life. Phoebe has to learn to drink blood, of course, first that of small animals and later of ‘consenting’ humans. But she also has to accustom herself to the terrifying brightness of ordinary daylight and the overpoweringly powerful hearing she has acquired. And she has to deal with the painfully acute sexual urges that are part of the maturing process. A major test comes when her ‘warmblood’ family is invited to dinner – will their daughter sink her teeth into their necks? Of course not, she’s been far too well brought up.

As for the Clermonts, they are preoccupied with their two year old twins. What traits will they have inherited from their parents? It seems that Becca is going to be a vampire – she’s not above sinking her little teeth into someone’s wrist and has to be given beet juice mixed with blood to drink. As for Philip, he manages to manifest a griffon, which becomes his devoted familiar. Two-year-olds are hard to manage at the best of times, so magical abilities just add to the burden for their worried parents.

When A Discovery of Witches first came out, the Guardian described it as ‘a very silly novel’. I think that was a bit unfair, and reviewers since then have been more respectful. But I can’t pretend that Time’s Convert has any profound philosophical meaning, or any message to help contemporary readers adjust to the problems of everyday life. But considering that I have never had any interest in fantasy as a genre, or vampires as a subject matter, I have had a great deal of enjoyment from these novels and lapped this one up with a lot of pleasure. Nothing wrong with a good story, and Harkness certainly manages to tell one.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Deborah Harkness, Time’s Convert (Headline, 2018) ISBN 978-1472237354, hardback, 468 pages.

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