Publisher: Viking Books
Publication Date: February 8, 2011
A richly inventive novel about a centuries-old vampire, a spellbound witch, and the mysterious manuscript that draws them together.
Deep in the stacks of Oxford's Bodleian Library, young scholar Diana Bishop unwittingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript in the course of her research. Descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana wants nothing to do with sorcery; so after a furtive glance and a few notes, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery sets a fantastical underworld stirring, and a horde of daemons, witches, and vampires soon descends upon the library. Diana has stumbled upon a coveted treasure lost for centuries-and she is the only creature who can break its spell.
Debut novelist Deborah Harkness has crafted a mesmerizing and addictive read, equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense. Diana is a bold heroine who meets her equal in vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont, and gradually warms up to him as their alliance deepens into an intimacy that violates age-old taboos. This smart, sophisticated story harks back to the novels of Anne Rice, but it is as contemporary and sensual as the Twilight series-with an extra serving of historical realism.
(Highlight for spoilers.)
In trying to review A Discovery of Witches, I am having trouble deciding where the problem lies: in the book or in me. I obviously like paranormal fantasy, and I like books with romantic elements. For something to fit within a genre, well, it must fit within a genre! Constantly calling books out for being 'predictable' simply because they fit conventions of a genre feels like a cheep shot. But I can't help it - I want my genre fiction to surprise me even as it conforms to my expectations. Also, one word: SCIENCE. Okay, maybe I should elaborate. I really like science, and, in 'real life,' I am pretty skeptical. I like fantasy in stories for a plethora of reasons, but have little use for it outside of entertainment purposes. Sometimes, it is okay when an author brings science into their fantasy world. I like the way it stretches ideas of what is possible by providing plausibility; but the plausibility factor is key. I like Star Trek because, even though much of what they did on that show wasn't possible at the time, it was plausible that, one day, it would be. However, I absolutely HATE when authors take scientific terminology, some basic scientific ideas or principles, and then run mad with them. I would much prefer to believe in an author's fictional world for the duration of their book(s) than to have them muck up the lay-reader's understanding of actual science! If you are going to use science in your world building, you should follow all the ideas you introduce to their logical conclusions, and make sure that they are logical conclusions. So, how do these issues apply to A Discovery of Witches?
Once again, we have a heroine who is magically the most sparkly-special of all the special people ever. She has previously un-encountered raw talent of such epic proportions that it blows everyone away, but she is completely unaware of it herself. She is the chosen one who does not want to be chosen. Naturally, she is also exceptionally beautiful and smart, but 'unaware' of it (despite the fact that she is the one who tells us so.) Her (naturally, forbidden) love interest is a mysterious, gorgeous, wealthy, cultured, tortured vampire who is saved from himself and healed by her insta-love. (Spoiler) I can understand instant attraction, but truly epic love has to grow, 'like a banana'. Tim Minchin references aside, true love doesn't happen in a matter of days or weeks. (End Spoiler) I was tired of the romance plot, and in large part the main characters, before I even finished the book.
As to the science - for the sake of my blood pressure I must keep this brief. Our understanding of DNA and genetics just doesn't work that way. Okay? This is just...wrong. It's wrong. Harkness took a wikepedia-depthed understanding of genetics and piled on so much drivel as to make it unrecognizable, and it DRIVES ME INSANE. Especially because it sounds right enough. Also, even award winning scientists at top research institutions don't get the level of autonomy experienced by Matthew from an institution when the institution is a University!!! Seriously? Installing his own fingerprint scanners, doing primarily personal research that will in no way be shared with the institution, a lab full of the latest and greatest of all technology, not being held accountable to anyone else, not even a token grad-student? I bet scientists the world over would be chopping off limbs for a set up like that.
Here is where I must ask myself if it is me or the book. I think the best answer is that it is a little bit of both. I should have known better than to read something that was touted as Twilight for adults. I don't like Twilight, and making the characters adults isn't really going to change that. The comparison isn't completely fair, though, because Matthew (despite starting as a creepy stalker) actually improves as the book progresses. Conversely, even though Diana starts off as a smart, independent if somewhat headstrong and snobbish character - she turns into a simpering idiot completely defined by her love for Matthew by the end. (Spoiler) Seriously, she MELTS, literally MELTS, into a liquid puddle because he leaves her for two days. And we aren't talking 'leaving' as in 'dumping' here, we are talking they are just in different locations for a few days! Nevermind that she must think about him, or not think at all, to get her magic to work. It's all okay because they are 'meant to be'. Did I mention the entire book takes place over a few months? (End Spoiler)
Harkness had a little problem with info-dumping and telling instead of showing, especially at the beginning. And her pacing sometimes felt bizarre. She would spend pages talking about the wine characters were drinking with dinner, then rush major events - like battles to the death - in a couple of paragraphs. However, she also built a pretty interesting world, and introduced some really interesting characters. (In fact, most of the secondary characters were much more interesting that Diana or Matthew!) Snickering at things like Vampire Yoga aside, she genuinely captured my attention at parts. I can see why so many people are giving this such rave reviews, I just don't think it is right for me right now. She piqued my curiosity enough that I might give her the next two books in the series a shot at some point, but I would have to have some pretty solid reviews from readers I trust first.
Purchased for my Nook at Barnes & Noble.
Review also at Goodreads