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Book Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

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I don’t know when vampires moved from genre reading (Anne Rice’s series of books and the Brad Pitt/Tom Cruise film Interview with a Vampire marked a starting point of sorts) into the mainstream. Perhaps Joss Whedon’s TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which appealed to a wide audience as a result of its clever mix of action and smart dialogue was the catalyst. More recently the Twilight series (aimed at teenage girls) has been hugely successful and seems to have spawned pale imitations galore. Just type “vampires” into the Amazon search box if you doubt me. Nor should we forget Harry Potter and the successful marketing of children’s books to adults. There are no vampires at Hogwarts that I can recall (although there was a werewolf), but the books legitimised the weird and wonderful and gave both vampires and werewolves a helpful leg-up.

Which brings me with some relief to a proper book for grown ups. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness is at its heart a love story, but the fantasy elements are never far away. She has created a recognisable world set at first in academic Oxford inhabited by the four types of being – humans, witches, vampires and daemons – and the book largely concentrates on the last three.

Diana Bishop is from a long line of witches but is in denial about her powers and the responsibilities that go with them. She has never been trained as a witch and her powers are (unknown to her) circumscribed by her late parents’ spells.

Matthew Clairmont is a long lived vampire with a past, a temper and looks to die for, as Diana discovers when they meet in the Bodleian library where she discovers a mysterious book. Soon the witches and the vampires are at each other’s throats as they watch and wait for Diana to unlock the secrets of the ancient text. Only Matthew seems to want to protect Diana from these dangers, which is just as well since she seems oblivious to the threat. In fact, in the early part of the book she is not a very sympathetic character, any more indeed than is Matthew. His over-protectiveness, old-fashioned notions of the relationship between modern man and woman and the clear and present danger he seems to offer to everyone, including Diana, make him a strong rather than likeable character.

The action moves to France in the second part of the book, and we meet Matthew’s family, including his mother Ysabeau and her companion Marthe. Ysabeau (is a better term than mother) is formidable and doesn’t think much of Diana, at least until she starts to show off some of her more formidable (if uncontrolled) powers. Marthe is a bit nicer, thank goodness.

This is a long book. It goes into enormous detail about vampires and their habits and powers, and there are long descriptions of meals, riding horses, Matthew’s past and Diana’s academic world. It is a bit surprising, therefore, that there is more or less no action until Diana is abducted by a witch and tortured rather gruesomely until Matthew and his brother can locate and rescue her. This episode marks a number of turning points – Diana and Matthew’s love for each becomes overt as do Diana’s powers.

The final section of the book takes us back to the States where Diana’s Aunt Sarah and her companion Em are as mistrustful of Matthew as his family were of Diana. There is a theme here – two sets of female companions, one strong, and the other more empathetic- but in some ways the mirror image feels a bit lazy. Here, too, there is a crisis when a vampire former girlfriend of Matthew’s more or less kills him. From there it becomes clear that we are in trilogy territory as the plot sets up the elements for the second and third books.

To be honest, by the end of the book, I could have wished for a little more closure and a bit less set-up.

Other reviews have been mixed. Many people just loved the book and can’t wait for more, which is a sort of masochism I have never much subscribed to. Others object to the slightly repetitious nature of some of the descriptions, and I certainly think that a sharp editor might have made this a better book.

However, I did enjoy it. The back stories of both witches and, better still, the vampires were well done and gave the characters both depth and mystery. I would have liked to see more of the daemons in the story (although that would have made the book even longer), but perhaps they will be given their chance in the later volumes.

On the other hand, it was never quite clear to me what a centuries old vampire saw in a slightly confused (if academically very clever) witch with more or less no powers, especially since relationships between the two species are forbidden by the all powerful Congregation, a group of witches, daemons and vampires who are the official opposition to Matthew, Diana and their friends and family.

Deborah Harkness has written academic books before but this was her first published novel (you never know what earlier attempts lurk on the computer, never to see the light of day). It will be interesting to see what improvements she can make in writing (and editing) when the second volume appears.

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About nicholas poole

  • http://www.texastrifles.com Cowtown Pattie

    I totally agree with your assessment. I, too, wanted to really really love this book (it had me at the librarian highbrow-ness), but it never quite hit its stride.

    Harkness would lead the story into really deep historical waters just to change course and inject some silly fluffiness.

    Like you, I am hoping her skills improve because I would like to discover more about the two mistmatched “others” lovers.