Women who run, and the readers who resent them

During my recent re-read of A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness’s huge bestseller from 2011, I noticed something that hadn’t struck me as forcefully the first time around.

Man, that Diana Bishop runs a lot.

Oh, to be sure, there’s an explanation for why her fanatical running routines get such prominence in the story. Diana’s a spell-bound witch, you see, which means that she has a huge store of power inside her that she can’t access and use via magic. All that back-up  results in an excess of adrenaline, and to release it, Diana runs. Constantly. And rows. Up and down the river, in the fog, occasionally with her eyes closed, but you get the point. That woman MOVES.

Earlier this year, I read Ocean’s Touch, an erotic story by Denise Townsend centered on a lonely widow and the sexy selkie who reawakens her to the possibilities of life and love. (Yes, I said sexy selkie. Deal with it.)  Meredith is smart, sad, responsible… and she runs. A lot. Miles at a time.

And there’s more. It seems like every other book I read lately features a strong, sexy, intelligent woman with an intense, highly demanding fitness routine. A couple months back, I read the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs, in which the heroine is a car mechanic, a shape-shifter, and a highly trained expert in a specialized martial arts discipline.

Even in the supremely silly Austenland by Shannon Hale, the Darcy-obsessed main character is so stymied by her faux-Regency immersion vacation that she must sneak outside for an early morning run in the gardens, corset and all. (Lesson learned: Corsets are not appropriate activewear. Invest in yoga pants instead).

Leaving aside Austenland, whose lead character simply cannot be taken seriously, the running and exercise habits of fictional women seem to be a sort of short-hand to denote certain character traits: intensity, intelligence, fierce independence, determination to go it alone. In the first three examples I mentioned, Diana, Meredith and Mercy start their stories as talented women who are walled off from their passions. When I read about a woman who’s a serious runner or other type of athlete, I generally know what to expect — this is a woman to be reckoned with, and often someone with issues to work out.

And where does that leave all of us, we the readers? If you’re like me, a low-to-moderate achiever on the scale of devotion to fitness, it’s a bit tough to take sometimes. Not only is Diana Bishop a Yale professor and a powerful witch, but she runs ten miles a day! Not only can Mercy fix a VW with her eyes closed, she can also kick your butt! Thank you, dear authors, for yet another reason to feel inadequate.

Perhaps this factors into why I love Jane True so very much. Jane is the creation of Nicole Peeler, and is the hilarious heroine of Tempest Rising and four other books (so far). Jane reads, works in a bookstore, and her appetite for hot sex is matched only by her appetite for delicious food. (Okay, to be fair, Jane also swims in the ocean on a daily basis, but that’s just to recharge her magical mojo… too much to explain here, but in Jane’s case, the exercise is part of her magic, not just a piece of her perfect fitness regimen.) Besides the fact that end I up laughing out loud whenever I read these books, I think I love Jane because if I met her in real life, I wouldn’t be intimidated by her perfectly toned abs and her runner’s legs — I’d be too busy pouring the hot chocolate and cutting up some pie to go with.

A final glimpse of the world of Jane True, in which our heroine finds herself confronting some hard choices in a diner with her would-be lover:

I wanted them all, but I also knew I was being greedy. Then Anyan’s deep voice rumbled from next to me.

“Why don’t I get the three-sausages and mash with the special sausages, and you get the same thing with the traditional ones, and the vegetarian, and we can share?”

At his words, I nearly choked on my emotions. You’re perfect, I thought…

Book Review: Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

Shadow of NightShadow of Night is book #2 in Deborah Harkness’s All Soul’s Trilogy, which kicked off last year with bestseller A Discovery of Witches. At the time ADOW was published, I remember scads of reviews referring to it as “Twilight for grown-ups”, which is and isn’t a fair comparison.

True, ADOW has as its focal point a forbidden romance between a witch and a vampire… and we all know that LOVE + VAMPIRE = TWILIGHT, right? Calm down, I’m just kidding. ADOW is much more than a romance, and the intelligence and emotional truth at its core elevate it far above the standard, popular, seemingly endless supply of vampire fiction.

I loved the heck out of ADOW for its combination of smarts (Oxford professors! Secret manuscripts! Alchemy! Mitochondrial DNA!), supernatural beings (the aforementioned witch and vampire, plus their various and assorted family members, clans, secret societies, etc. Oh, and did I mention daemons?), and yes – be still my heart – passionate, forbidden love. Also, yoga, running, and rowing, for those who get hot and bothered by reading about exercise freaks.

ADOW ended with a plot point that left us hanging off the proverbial cliff, and Shadow of Night picks up the narrative mere moments after the conclusion of the first book. Witchy Diana Bishop and gorgeous vampire Matthew Clairmont have just timewalked back to Elizabethan England in the year 1590. Their goal is two-fold: to find a remedial witchcraft teacher for Diana, who never learned to use her talents, and to find the mysterious manuscript before the rest of the supernatural world gets to it.

First, bigger challenges await. Diana must learn to dress in awkward clothing, write with a quill, and speak with an accent that doesn’t scream “hello, I’m a time-traveler!” in order to fit in with the locals. And such locals! 1500-year-old Matthew has always been an important guy, and in the 1590s, he is a spy for Queen Elizabeth, a member of the powerful supernatural ruling body, the Congregation, and a member of the School of Night, a group of influential men which includes Sir Walter Raleigh, playwright Christopher Marlowe, and various other scholars and scientists of the time. A bit of a problem for me: I didn’t know who all of these historical figures actually were, so I had to sidetrack a bit in order to figure it out. Thank you, Wikipedia!

The plot moves from Oxford to London, France, and Prague. There are a ton of new characters introduced, some of whom matter more than others. How thoughtful of the publisher to give us a list of characters at the end – seriously, after a while I really needed it.

This is a dense, long book. At nearly 600 pages, there’s a lot to keep track of. I found it a bit slow-going for the first 75 – 100 pages, with too much time spent on Diana adjusting to life in 1590, and not enough emphasis on her relationship with Matthew. In addition, during the early sections, Diana and Matthew are surrounded by an entirely new cast of characters, and I thought the mood and urgency of the book suffered from the lack of the other people we’d come to care about in book one.

The pace definitely picks up once the couple travels to Sept-Tours in France, where Matthew reconnects with his family and he and Diana take the final steps toward formalizing and cementing their bonds. I was surprised by how moving I found this section. I won’t go into spoilers, but suffice it to say that Matthew’s reunion and reconciliation with one particular family member brought tears to my eyes.

Quibbles (there are always quibbles): Besides the enormous cast and the seemingly endless amount of period detail, there are two main items that bothered me about SON, and they’re significant plot points.

One, I still don’t fully buy the author’s concept of time travel. In these books, when Diana and Matthew step into the past, the 21st century version of Matthew essentially takes the place of the 16th century Matthew… so when they get to 1590, the Matthew who’d been there disappears (much to the consternation of his associates) and the new Matthew steps in, picking up his social life, his work connections, his obligations and his loyalties. When they leave, the old Matthew will presumably reappear and pick up where he left off, but can’t know what the new Matthew did during that time for fear of changing the future. Huh? Yeah, it all works, more or less, but I never really got on board with this presto-change-o business.

Secondly, the whole point of the timewalking was to find a teacher for Diana. They spend about two-thirds of the book searching for a witch to teach Diana how to be a witch (at a time when witch hunts are rampant, so this doesn’t necessarily sound like a smart plan, IMHO). When they finally find a witch mentor, however, I felt a bit short-changed; the story actually spends very little time on her lessons, so it felt to me that Diana made big leaps in her mastery of her powers without us seeing it happen.

Perhaps this makes it sound as though I didn’t care for the book, and that’s simply not the case. Let me make it clear: I loved Shadow of Night! I really couldn’t put it down, stayed up too late at night to read it, and even skipped TV nights so I could finish. (Now that’s devotion!). The author does a marvelous job with the love story, and I found Matthew and Diana’s trajectory through SON both captivating and electrifying. There are so many beautiful moments throughout the book, as well as moments of fear, tragedy, betrayal, and adventure. Ms. Harkness’s love of history shines through, and she clearly had a ball recreating life in Elizabeth’s England, from the clothing to the coins to the “latest” in scientific developments.

SON ends at a key turning point, and once I realized it was approaching, I found myself slowing down as I got nearer to the end of the book, not wanting to face the fact that this installment was done. I eagerly await the third and final book in the trilogy, and just hate not knowing THIS INSTANT how it all turns out. If you loved ADOW, then you simply have to read SON. And if you didn’t read ADOW, what are you waiting for? Read these books now!