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The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
Katherine Howe
Narrated by Katherine Kellgren, unabridged
Hyperion Audiobooks, 13 hours

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
Katherine Howe
Katherine Howe's ancestors settled Essex County, Massachusetts in the 1620s, and stayed there through the twentieth century. Family members included Elizabeth Proctor, who survived the Salem witch trials, and Elizabeth Howe, who did not. Katherine Howe is completing a PhD in American and New England Studies at Boston University, which included teaching a research seminar on New England witchcraft. The idea for this novel developed while she was studying for her doctoral qualifying exams, walking her dog through the woods between Marblehead and Salem. She lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts with her family.

Katherine Howe Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Ivy Reisner

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The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is a work of intellectual fantasy. The protagonist, Connie Goodwin, is a Harvard graduate student going out for her PhD in Colonial History. Much of the action of the book takes place in libraries, academic meetings, and old archives. The magic is understated for much of the book, and the main quest of the novel centers on finding an old tome. That makes this a unique type of book for a debut novel, but Katherine Howe pulls it off splendidly.

Connie must move into her deceased grandmother's house in order to clean it up and prepare it to be sold. It's a strange old house, with mandrake roots growing in the yard, strange bottles lining the shelves of the kitchen, and no phone or electricity. The timing couldn't be worse, as she has just been approved to begin her doctoral dissertation, and she needs a topic, and a compelling new primary source.

On her first day in the house she encounters a name, Deliverance Dane, and a reference to an old book of witchcraft. If she could find that, she would have a magnificent primary source, but first she must scour records and archives to follow the book as it passed from hand to hand throughout history. Ultimately the quest takes a dangerous turn, and she finds she needs the book, not only to further her academic career, but to save the life of the man she loves.

Katherine Kellgren delivers the story in a compelling manner, with a New England accent that is perfect for the work. She gives a distinctive voice for each character, which is cute when she's voicing the lady at the Wiccan store and critical at points when she's voicing Connie's advisor, Manning Chilton. This is the kind of material that lends itself best to print, as future information casts prior events in a new light, and the reader will want to look back to confirm certain parallels. But it would be hard to impossible to find a better narrator for this book and the music is appropriate and understated.

Stylistically, this book is unique. The story moves back and forth in time, and while the events in 1992 are presented in order, those in 1692 are jumbled to better line up with Connie's discoveries. Many scenes end on a cliffhanger, and overall the reader is pulled through the story, unwilling to turn away. We also get a delayed reveal of information that can sometimes be compelling and sometimes frustrating. When she's close to finding the book at an inopportune time, the question of is it the right book or not is compelling. When she's staring at some mysterious something about her front door, but the reader isn't let in on what for quite a while, it's annoying. When the reader's knowledge parallels the point of view character's knowledge it works well, and that accounts for most of the delays in revealing information.

The attentive reader will resolve many mysteries long before Connie does -- this doesn't seem to happen with any of the other point of view characters -- and that has the mixed effect of making the reader feel a bit smug, then a bit frustrated with the character. This book requires an attentive reading. There is so much a casual reader can miss in the work. Alchemy evolved into chemistry, but in the story the events of 1692 are tied to chemistry and those in 1992 are tied to alchemy -- an inversion that adds to the structural curiosity of the work.

Alchemy is tied to men and to the East (the term means, roughly "the skill of Kemet" and Kemet was the original name for Egypt). The sympathetic magic practiced by the Salem witches was tied to women and the West. They stand as opposing forces in various ways throughout this story. We also have a mix of names with obvious meanings (Deliverance, Grace, Mercy, Prudence), names with somewhat disguised meanings (Manning Chilton has "man" and "chill" and that's appropriate for the character), and almost childish alliterative names (Deliverance Dane, Grace Goodwin, Peter Petford). This book is tightly crafted, with each element carefully selected.

This kind of close reading does draw the attention to the book's few plot holes. For example, a magic spell tells Connie that's she'll find Deliverance Dane's story in the old house, but while we learned much of it, Connie barely learned any of it. In fact, Connie learned far more about her own story than she did of anyone from Salem's past. That said, there are precious few plot holes for the reader to be concerned with.

Overall, this title is highly recommended for people who prefer their fantasy on the cerebral side. Fans of Kostova's The Historian are certain to enjoy this work as well.

Copyright © 2009 Ivy Reisner

Ivy Reisner is a writer, an obsessive knitter, and a podcaster. Find her at IvyReisner.com.


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