Saturday, February 05, 2011

A Discovery of Witches – review

Author: Deborah Harkness

First Published: 2011

Contains Spoilers

The Blurb: Deep in the heart of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, scholar Diana Bishop requests a manuscript called Ashmole 782 in the course of her research. Coming from an old and distinguished lineage of witches Diana senses that the ancient book might be bound up with magic – but she herself wants nothing to do with sorcery; and after making a few notes on its curious images, she banishes it quickly back to the stacks. But what she doesn’t know is that the old alchemical text has been lost for centuries, and its sudden appearance has set a fantastical underworld stirring. Soon a distracting horde of daemons, witches, and vampires descends upon the Bodleian’s reading rooms. One of these creatures is Matthew Clairmont, an enigmatic and eminent geneticist, practitioner of yoga and wine connoisseur – and also a vampire with a keen interest in Ashmole 782.

Equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense, A Discovery of Witches is a novel of epic scope, traveling from the cobbled streets of Oxford to the chateaus and mountains of the Auvergne to a small town in upstate New York. It also takes us into a rich fifteen-hundred-year history that spans Clovis and the Crusades, the Knights Templars and the American Revolution. As Matthew and Diana’s alliance deepens into intimacy, Diana must come to terms with age-old taboos and her own family’s conflicted history – and she must learn where the modern woman she is meets the source of ancient power that is her legacy. With a scholar’s depth and the touch of a great storyteller, Deborah Harkness has woven a tale of passion and obsession; the collision of magic, alchemy, and science; and the closely guarded secrets of an enchanted world.

The Review: Reviewing this book leads me to have mixed feelings. The volume is large and detailed. The writing is crisp and the world that Harkness draws is interesting. This is a world where as well as humans there are witches, daemons and vampires living amongst us. Four races, with the three supernatural ones hiding their true identities from our mundane race.

There are distinct genetic differences between humans, the witches, the daemons (who are born, it seems, randomly to human parents and who are geniuses and, sometimes, mad) and the vampires who are humans turned but the vampire blood recodes their dna. There is a backdrop to this of Matthew, the vampire, believing that the magical races are dying out and that the manuscript that Diana finds might contain the key to stopping this.

The vampires are long lived, super strong and fast. They have pack and predatory instincts, are dangerously possessive, fiercely jealous and territorial, have sharp teeth (rather than fangs) and are sunlight resistant. To kill one you need to cause massive blood loss (slashing arteries in both the throat and groin, for instance, or damage the heart and cut into an artery) and fire (or at least magical witchfire) is also effective. They will eat mortal food, on occasion, and only reproduce via blood. A series of murders – in the background and not a focal story point – are seen as a young vampire failing to turn people, hence Matthew’s thought that the vampires are dying out.

Because, when together, the supernatural races become more obvious to humans they have a ruling council, the congregation, who govern the three races as per a covenant. This includes the idea that the three races should not be intimate with each other and this rule, plus power corrupting, makes the congregation the enemy of the series.

I will have to mention that when the blurb suggests the book “takes us into a rich fifteen-hundred-year history” it is in the form, in this volume, of people looking back to the past (especially the vampires who lived it) rather than dedicated scenes jumping through history in the form of vignettes – I mention because I know some readers like the latter form.

This was not my problem. My problem lay with the two main characters. It became clear quickly that Diana – who had turned her back on magic after her parents were murdered in her childhood – was some sort of über-witch, whose magic had been somehow repressed. As such she is clearly more powerful than the other witches, but unfocused. Matthew, also, is an alpha vampire and clearly very powerful if not more powerful (given certain resources) than the bad vampires. Put the characters together and we suspect that we will have an unstoppable force by the end of the trilogy. The mistrust Diana feels for Matthew and his secrets is always too quickly overcome and that is because, as well as an adventure, Harkness has written a romance and the romance falls back on those tropes of “we are special”, “we fall immediately for each other”, “Our love is forbidden” and “our love will conquer all”. Now, that is all well and good for those who want that, for me it was a distraction within an interesting new universe and I didn’t buy into their relationship as a result of the more standard tropes used to construct it.

However, that is just me as a reader. Others will, I know, enjoy that aspect. Despite my lack of main character connection I did enjoy the book as a whole, I just wished at times the book refocused into the wider aspects and some of the other characters - who were mainly seen through the central protagonists' eyes. 6.5 out of 10.


Ladytink_534 said...

I did like their relationship even if I had problems with some of it. I am curious as to how they're going to fair while in the past since they've only known each other for 40 days.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Ladytink, it was the more romance element (that to a degree overlooks behaviour that most would find unacceptable, such as the possessiveness) that threw me - but I recognise a market for it.

Given you have mention the past - so I haven't spoilt that one - I do hope that the relationship becomes problematic whilst there. Even though we know that a resolution will have to come about I think that the series will be stronger for it.