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Book 34: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

UK cover
Book 34: A Discovery of Witches .
Author: Deborah Harkness, 2011.
Genre: Paranormal Romance. History of Science and Alchemy. Mystery.
Other Details: Hardback. 608 pages.

This début novel, which combines paranormal romance with historical mystery, focuses on American historian Diana Bishop, who is in Oxford undertaking research on alchemy at the Bodleian Library. When she opens an obscure manuscript it responds to her in an unusual fashion. The reason for this is that Diana is actually a witch with a powerful lineage. However, following the violent deaths of her parents when she was a child she consciously turned her back on that world. As witches, vampires and daemons sense the significance of Diana's discovery, they gather in Oxford and encroach upon her safely ordered world. Among them is Matthew Clairmont, a vampire geneticist, who is of course devastatingly handsome and rich beyond measure. Diana is irresistibly drawn to Matthew and he to her. Together they decide to unlock the secrets of the manuscript. However, in doing so they are not fully aware of the ancient covenant they will break and the dangers awaiting them.

I was so excited when I read the premise for this book, especially as its author is an academic historian with special interest in the history of science and magic during the 16th and 17th centuries. I quickly slapped in a pre-order and could hardly wait for it to arrive through my letter box. However, almost from its opening pages I realised that this wasn't quite what I had hoped for either in style or content and quickly got to the point of wanting to hurl it across the room.

So yes, I had a number of issues with the novel. In Harkness' world witches define themselves as non-human and its magic is once again of the nose-twitching variety, reminiscent of 'Bewitched'/'Charmed', rather than anything more subtle. Yes, of course, this is a fantasy novel but as the author draws on her knowledge of the real-life history of magic and its intersection with science I had higher hopes. Also, making magic the providence of a select group of 'non-human' beings struck a discordant note for me. Still, that is because of my own background in magic and witchcraft and probably of little concern to other readers.

Although some interesting alchemical ideas are introduced later on, overall the tone of the novel felt very academic and scientific in its approach to magic rather capturing any sense of the numinous, the mysterious or the Gothic. Indeed, I termed this to several friends as an anti-Gothic novel. Quite a feat given its locations of autumnal Oxford and regions of France seeped in medieval and Renaissance architecture.

Then there is the romance between Diana and Matthew, which emerges full blown without any build up or tension. I am not a fan of this kind of predictable, soppy love story. Also, Harkness obviously has no awareness that making your main characters pretty much perfect and gifted beyond measure isn't all that interesting. Well if nothing else this novel proves that Mary Sue is far from dead!

The novel lacks humour except for the kind that is obviously unintentional including an ongoing theme in which characters keep commenting on how other characters smell. As one reviewer said of this aspect: "He drives a Jag, is an expert yoga practitioner, and smells like cinnamon and cloves (by the third or fourth reiteration of this point I began to think of him as a vampiric pumpkin pie)." How I wished someone would smell of sweat or crack a fart rather than constantly be smelling of spices and flowers!

I couldn't help but compare it to the Wicked series penned by Nancy Holder and Debbie Viguie, which also suffered from an abundance of Mary Sues and Gary Stus and nose-twitching awesomely powerful witches with ancient bloodlines. However, at least in A Discovery of Witches the history is accurate and the conflicts between various supernatural factions were much more subtle. No cities were levelled or zombie hoards called up to munch away on the unsuspecting populace.

USA cover
Having said all this, once I accepted the terms of the world Harkness had created and the plot began to develop as Matthew and Diana leave Oxford and start engaging with a wider set of characters and situations, I actually became quite engaged with the story. Also, I grew to appreciate Diana and Matthew as things became uncomfortable and more complicated for them.

Despite my reservations, I was impressed throughout at how well Harkness integrated history, science and alchemical imagery into the plot. Overall, these aspects were where the novel's strength lay for me as well as in the promise of the direction that the story is taking. In its final pages it does build up a fair head of steam. It is the first in a series (All Souls Trilogy) with no fixed date on when the second will appear though author says on her website she is hoping for a 2012 publication.

Excerpt from the book on author's website - with links to other material.
Tags: conspiracy fiction, historical mysteries, paranormal, romance, vampires, witchcraft

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