Sunday, February 27, 2011

“A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness (Headline)

Reviewed by Emma Newrick

Harkness-ADiscoveryOfWitchesUKAn Academic, a Book, and Daemons, Witches and Vampires…

When historian Diana Bishop opens an alchemical manuscript in the Bodleian Library, it's an unwelcome intrusion of magic into her carefully ordered life. Though Diana is a witch of impeccable lineage, the violent death of her parents while she was still a child convinced her that human fear is more potent than any witchcraft.

Now Diana has unwittingly exposed herself to a world she's kept at bay for years; one of powerful witches, creative, destructive daemons and long-lived vampires. Sensing the significance of Diana's discovery, the creatures gather in Oxford, among them the enigmatic Matthew Clairmont, a vampire genticist. Diana is inexplicably drawn to Matthew and, in a shadowy world of half-truths and old enmities, ties herself to him without fully understanding the ancient line they are crossing. As they begin to unlock the secrets of the manuscript and their feelings for each other deepen, so the fragile balance of peace unravels...

This book has received lots of hype, which usually either makes me desperate to read something, or very determined not to. Thanks to Twilight and the other zillion books that have featured fanged heroes, I was rather tired of supernatural romance, but this one did intrigue me...

It didn’t start off well. Some rather clunky setting up of back-story, wittering about scientists and a frankly irritating heroine didn’t instantly endear the book to me. I find it especially annoying when American writers set their books in the UK and then proceed to have their American main character talk in Americanisms: ‘grade school’, ‘program’, ‘sophomores’ and ‘grad students’. This character is supposed to be immersed in the Oxford University culture – those Americans I know in a similar position, who lecture and conduct research as part of a British university, use the British terms to refer to their postgrads, lectures and tutor groups, because that is the language of the university. This anachronism made it hard for me to suspend my disbelief and immerse myself in the world of the book. I found the heroine at this point rather unsympathetic and difficult to relate to: her character seems a little flat and two-dimensional, as well as a bit wet. Also, though it’s refreshing to have a heroine who’s not a teenage girl, the repetition of the minutiae of academic life really isn’t that interesting for non-academics and it could have benefited from some rather more rigorous editing down.

However, Harkness gradually gets into her stride. Her secondary characters – the daemons, Matthew’s and Diana’s family – are all vividly brought to life, and we get to know her hero, vampire Matthew Clairmont, at the same time as Diana does. Matthew is a far more intriguing character than Diana is: believable, mysterious, with a Past, but refreshingly free of too much tortured anguish, which we’ve come to expect from fictional vampires in recent years. I do think the yoga was a step too far, though...

Once Harkness gets going, the plot rattles along. I’m afraid I missed the significance of the manuscript initially, as Diana herself does, but it soon becomes clearer that just about everyone in the supernatural trinity of vampires, witches and daemons wants the book, Diana and Matthew’s lives get increasingly more complicated as they attempt to recover it. There’s a hint of Dan Brown about the mystery, but thankfully it’s far better written and more credible.

Harkness does a good job of bringing the Oxford of the book to life, and her supernatural world is fascinating, blending myth and magic with a new and fresh take on tired old supernatural characters. The plot isn’t subsumed by the romance, and she isn’t afraid to show a darker side to what are supposedly ‘good’ characters (keep an eye out for Matthew’s mother), or to keep the ground constantly shifting beneath Diana’s (and therefore the reader’s) feet. Nothing in this world is as it seems. As Diana herself starts to learn more about her powers, and why she might have suppressed them for so long, I enjoyed the fact that she needed to learn to use them; rather than just pointing a wand and reeling off a few incantations, Diana’s ignorance of her own strength won’t help her defend herself, and could very well get her killed.

Matthew Clairmont himself grows from a rather supercilious and suspiciously perfect academic into a well-rounded and appealing character, who isn’t without his dark side. Learning more about Matthew’s past as their love affair develops intrigues Diana and the reader, and again Harkness’s take on the stock supernatural character is refreshing.

By the second half of the book I was unable to put it down, and am already looking forward to the next instalment.


US Edition, published by Viking

1 comment:

  1. I could not put it down. I was hooked from the begining. Beautifully written and the incoporation of history and science was such a bonus. It is not just another trashy romance novel. Loved this book and I can't wait for the next one!