When last seen, Diana Bishop — the time-walking witch and narrator of Deborah Harkness' first novel, A Discovery of Witches — was hightailing it out of the 21st century with her 1,500-year-old vampire lover, Matthew Clairmont. Now, in the sequel, Shadow of Night, Diana and Matthew have touched down in 1590. They're on the lam from one of those supernatural cabals beloved of genre novelists. Which shady organization doesn't really matter: This novel proceeds at a snail's pace, leaving a narrative thread that's almost invisible.
Fortunately, Harkness makes up for a lack of narrative thrust by weaving a tapestry of 16th century European life that is as densely populated, colorful and occasionally puzzling as a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. A scholar of Elizabethan history, Harkness is an entertaining guide to a French chateau, teeming London and the Prague Jewish ghetto during the Tudor era. Numerous luminaries — Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth I, Emperor Rudolf II — and lesser-known historical figures are given walk-ons. Like Diana and Matthew, some of these folks turn out to be supernatural creatures. Christopher Marlowe was a charismatic, sexually obsessive, substance-abusing demon? Of course!
What plot there is revolves around the fugitive lovers' search for Ashmole 782, an ancient, mysterious alchemical manuscript. (Is there any other kind?) Diana discovered the text back in our century when she was a historian at Yale and realized it was missing three critical pages.
Shadow of Night is overstuffed with secondary characters and plot elements that never quite pan out. Firedrakes, goddesses, waterwitches, plucky orphans and a golem all make an appearance. It's not enough that Diana is on hiatus from modern times: In the past, she runs into her wizard-anthropologist father, too.
Still, Shadow of Night makes a satisfying beach read, with enough cameos and fun facts to offset its longueurs. Thomas Harriot, legendary mathematician and astronomer, was a demon? Who knew?