In M.F. Bloxam's debut novel, The Night Battles, she has created an unforgettable character. Joan Severance, a history professor from Brown, has come to the small Italian town, Valparuta. New archieves from medieval times have just been opened to scholars for research. The town fathers hope that this will bring tourism to their town. La Professoressa, as the townspeople call her, is happy to have been chosen as the first scholar to review these archieves and discover what life was like in the area hundreds of years ago.
But all is not as it seems. Severance, far from being the esteemed scholar Valparuta thinks it is getting, is one step ahead of being discharged from Brown. Her academic career has been filled with appointments from one college to another, always leaving when it becomes clear she won't be renewed. Her personal life always emerges in a negative way, jeopardizing her career. She cares little for the opinions of others, having love affairs with colleagues and having little rein on her temper, resulting in actual physical violence against a student.
Yet Valparuta is also not what it seems. The head librarian, Chiesa, turns out to have his own secrets, and it is quickly clear that he is a drug addict. As Joan starts her research, she quickly discovers accounts of church trials of witches and what are known as benandanti. The benandanti were considered good witches, who traveled out of their bodies at night to fight the evil witches and assure bountiful harvests. Also considered a fertility cult and heretics by the Catholic Church, they were jailed and sometimes executed, and historians believed that they were stamped out. This discovery is major and Severance plans to organize her research around the topic. Yet, sinister events soon lead to the revelation that this is not a medieval belief in Valparuta. The entire town still believes in witches and benandanti, and everything revolves around the battles between the two sects.
The Night Battles is well written, and the tension mounts from the first page. The reader is quickly drawn into the beliefs of the town and its people, and many will find they must put down the book occasionally to take a break from the suspense. Both Joan Severance and Chiesa are well-drawn, and the more minor characters are also fleshed out believably. It is a major coup to make such beliefs in modern times appear believable and the mainspring of action, and Bloxam pulls it off. This book is recommended for suspense readers.