Thursday, February 24, 2011

Book Review: "A Discovery of Witches"

I'm a fan of Deborah Harkness' non-fiction works, so when I learned at ALA Midwinter that she'd written a novel (A Discovery of Witches, just out from Viking), I was both excited and worried (as I'm sure I've mentioned, I tend to be skeptical of historians writing fiction and novelists writing history). When I read the text on the back, I got a little more worried. Witches, daemons, and vampires? "Fantastical underworlds stirring"? "... an intimacy that violates ancient taboos"? Oh boy. Nonetheless, I picked up a copy at ALA, got it signed, and added it to my "to read" pile.

And then I read it. All 579 pages in about four nights. Harkness's work - the first in a trilogy, it would seem - is pure literary brain-candy, but unlike many works of its type, it's very well written and chock full of fascinating bits from Harkness' researches into alchemy and early modern science (which I strongly suspect may feature even more strongly in the next volume, though you'll have to read this one to find out why). Combine that with discussions of evolutionary genetics, secret chivalric orders, and magic, and you've got A Discovery of Witches.

The book's parallel universe is populated by cast of witches, vampires, and daemons (collectively referred to as creatures), who live mostly quietly alongside we humans (sort of like the angels in Danielle Trussoni's Angelology). The main character and narrator, Diana Bishop, is a very powerful witch, but she hasn't quite realized the potential reach of her powers. Until, that is, she calls up an enchanted manuscript in the Bodleian Library that hasn't been seen for 150 years and which might, just might, contain the secret of the origins of the three types of creature, all of whom want to get their hands on it.

Bishop finds herself allied with Matthew Clairmont, a vampire geneticist who's also interested in the manuscript's contents, and naturally romance ensues. But inter-creature romance is that ancient taboo warned of above, and there's a price to be paid for witch-vampire fraternization (a price even worse than meeting your vampire beau's notoriously witch-hating vampire mum at her castle near Lyon, or bringing him home to meet your witch aunts in their haunted and rather vindictive house).

Some of the plot elements here are a little bit campy (vampire/witch yoga classes?), but only in the best possible way. Harkness' good writing and sense of humor keep the story moving, and the pace is for the most part just quick enough to hold the reader's interest while still taking up some time (not everything happens over the course of a single day). Harkness' attention to sensory details like smells, tastes and textures can be a bit overbearing after a while, but I also found that these touches allowed me to more fully immerse myself in the story.

I can't refrain from mentioning the role books play here: sometimes they even rise to the level of characters themselves. Beyond the enchanted manuscript, the other Bodleian texts Diana examines, plus Matthew's lovingly-described and fantastic home library (a centuries-long lifespan and inordinate amounts of cash help with that) as well as the Bishop family grimoire all play important roles.

One of those books that I wanted to rip through quickly so I could find out what happens, but also wanted to read very slowly so that I didn't have to be done too fast. I'll be waiting - impatiently - to find out what comes next.

1 comment:

Freeman Presson said...

Heh. I agreed to review this for my local witchy store, just to see if they should order it. I'm not very far into it, but so far the integrated yoga class was one of my favorite bits. An author in this genre will have a hard time writing anything that is not already a cliche.