M.F. Bloxam’s debut novel, The Night Battles (Permanent Press 2008), uses a nuanced blend of history, legend, and mythology to explore the ways in which the past will always haunt the present. On the run from the wreckage of a career in academia, the novel’s protagonist, Joan Severance, escapes to Valparuta, Sicily, where she expects to put her skills as a historian to good use. The town’s archives are a treasure-trove of minutia from the lives of the long-dead, and while the records she uncovers reveal much about the lives of those who have gone before her, it’s the peculiar absences of information that lead to the biggest mysteries surrounding Valparuta. As her investigation deepens, Severance learns that the town has been the scene of an ongoing battle between the forces of good and evil for countless generations—and that this battle has taken place not on the physical plane, but on an astral one.
One thing that makes this novel stand out is that while its heroine is a historian, she neither falls into the Dan Brown Da Vinci Code mold of adventurer-historian, nor is she a female Indiana Jones. That is, Bloxam doesn’t attempt to wow her readers with vaguely scandalous information about the true identity of the Mona Lisa, and she’s not especially interested in giving the world yet another action hero. Rather, Severance is more in line with James Axton, the protagonist of Don DeLillo’s The Names who, like Severance, discovers hidden, haunting meaning in the forces of history and ruminates upon that meaning in intelligent and thought-provoking ways. Emotionally stunted in many respects, Severance is not just on a quest to discover the truth about Valparuta; she’s on a quest to discover her own humanity.
None of this, of course, is to say that the novel is purely a character study. Indeed, The Night Battles takes many unexpected twists and turns, and what drives it forward is both the sense of mystery that Bloxam has given to the town of Valparuta and the silent longing for some kind of emotional depth that she has given to her protagonist. In short, The Night Battles is a work of beauty, a curious cross between Umberto Ecco and Neil Gaiman—mysterious, moody, and highly engaging.