Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Reviewed by Doris
This is one of those books that I am really not sure if I liked or not. It is at first reading a conglomeration of all things popular in fiction over the last ten years—magic, witches, vampires, daemons, alchemy, secret societies, time travel, codes, and revisionist histories. Harkness said in an NPR interview that she took themes and ideas to which her students could relate and used them for the trilogy, of which this is the first book. There is a great sense of familiarity with many of the themes and ideas which you will also find in the Twilight series, books by J. K. Rowling, Dan Brown, Charlaine Harris, and several other authors who have landed on the best seller lists in recent years.
Let’s start by talking about the author of this highly successful first novel. Harkness is a history professor with a specialty in Renaissance England. She has won a bunch of high level academic awards and scholarships including a Fulbright. She is obviously quite a story teller whose fascination with detail probably makes her a very interesting lecturer for her students. Scattered throughout the book are bits and pieces of history that alternately move the story and bog it down. And, at 579 pages, Harkness obviously has a lot of story to tell.
Diana Bishop is a history of science professor who is an expert on alchemy manuscripts and a professor at Yale. She is also a witch descended from the Bishop and Proctor lineages of powerful witches, but she has denied her magic most of her life. She says she does not want anyone to think her achievements come from the magic rather than her hard work. While studying manuscripts in the Bodleian Library she encounters an enchanted manuscript. Missing for hundreds of years, Ashmore 728 holds secrets paramount to the survival of witches, daemons, and vampires. Each species wants the book, and each is willing to do whatever it takes to get it.
After Diana finds Ashmore 728 and it opens briefly for her, she returns the book to the stacks without understanding the importance of it. Then otherworld creatures begin to collect around her. These are led by Matthew Clairmont a tall, gorgeous, mysterious, ancient vampire who settles in to be Diana’s protector. Since witches and vampires have really bad blood between them, Diana is slow to trust Matthew. She is also confused by the fact that he is a brilliant doctor specializing in genetics, a fellow in several of the colleges at Oxford, and he keeps secrets that go back hundreds of years.
The remainder of the story is Diana and Matthew falling quickly and madly in love, the dangers they encounter when others realize Diana is the only witch with the power to open Ashmore 728, the story of Matthew’s and Diana’s families (I like his mother Ysabeau and her Aunt Sarah), and secrets revealed that leave everything Matthew and Diana hold dear at risk. Characters abound with some of them being really interesting and fun, some being so plucked from the vampire/witch stereotypical folklore that it is ridiculous. Diana discovers just how much power she has and finds she has to learn to use it wisely or Matthew is lost. At one point I thought Harkness was going to tell the readers Matthew was Jesus, but he is not. I was still left with the feeling if she could work that into the story she would.
Harkness needs a strong editor who can reign in the endless pages of details that are done over and over. The concentration on Matthew’s super keen hearing and sense of smell, how she likes her tea told at least forty-seven times, the descriptions of the vampires hunting and bloodletting, how Matthew smells of cinnamon and cloves (didn’t they use those spices to disguise the smell of death???), her endless recounting of her wardrobe, all make this book much longer than it needs to be. Matthew knew Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Kit Marlowe, several Popes, innumerable kings and queens including Elizabeth I and Isaac Newton. Some of the historical details are fun and very interesting, but Harkness almost buries the reader in it. She has created some good plot lines and characters, but she teeters on the edge of letting it all get away from her.
The second book of the trilogy is now out. It is almost six hundred pages so I don’t think Harkness has found that editor. It is set in Elizabethan England where Diana and Matthew have time traveled to find powerful witches to instruct Diana. Since this is the time period in which Harkness has her expertise, I am sure the details will be very true and give much color to the plot. Will I read it? Sure! While the book has a number of irritating faults, it is still basically a good story. As long as the vampires don’t sparkle and the witches don’t have magic mirrors or poisoned apples, and the Knights Templar don’t crusade again, I can handle it.

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