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Witches, Vampires, and Academia

September 29, 2011

A Discovery of Witches: A Novel
Deborah Harkness
Penguin Publishing
February 2011

A Discovery of Witches caught my eye in the spring, when BlogHer Book club was reviewing it. I didn’t have time to tackle it then- I would have had to read during the Book Expo. Which wasn’t going to happen.

This is the kind of story that draws you in, makes its world and the characters so immediate, that it’s best to read with minimal distractions. I zoomed through it in a few days, torn between wanting to spend every second reading, and wanting to savor my wandering through the interesting blend of academics and magic Harkness sets up.

There are two more books in the works, I believe. I won’t spoil plot, but I will say, the last few pages are somewhat unresolved. (Not jarringly so, like the way Blackout really needs to be read with a copy of All Clear ready at hand.) Some people like to know this before they start reading.

There was so much I loved about this book. I love the characters, both as individuals, and in terms of the world Harkness sets up. There are witches, vampires and daemons, moving among humans and trying to stay unnoticed.Mingling with humans to varying degrees. There are tension between the three sets of supernatural creatures, mistrust of one another’s history and motives.

When the story begins, Diana Bishop, the last in a line of legendarily powerful witches, is studying the history of alchemy at Oxford’s Bodleian library. Not to make herself a better witch. Far from it. Since her parents died when she was a girl, Diana has wanted nothing to do with magic. She’s a college professor and an academic, studying alchemical symbols for their relationship to science, ignoring her aunts’ protestations that training her magic is her birthright. Diana doesn’t want magic in her life, except grudgingly. A spell here and there, to fix the washing machine, to open a stubbornly sealed old book.

But… the stubbornly sealed book, Ashmole 782, is the beginning of much, much more magic getting tangled up in Diana’s life. Vampires, daemons and other witches, start to notice, and to threaten, Diana. One of the creatures keeping an eye on Diana is the mysterious and imperious Matthew Clairmont, a vampire studying biology at the university. (A vampire scientist! I love the mental image.)

I think I enjoyed this book more for its worldview and its mythology, than for the central plot surrounding Diana and Matthew. I like the combination of academia and the supernatural. I liked the homey touches of Diana’s aunts, worrying about her and welcoming trick or treaters on Halloween. And I bought into Harkness’s esoteric suspense. Questions about having, and interpreting the ancient text Diana discovered drive the tensions of the plot, even threatening Diana’s life.

I wanted more, though, of the innovative machinery of Harkness’s world of creatures and their knowledge and politics. When attraction blossoms between Diana and Michael (this is totally not a spoiler. He’s a vampire. It’s a novel. There’s a romance in the works), flying in the face of centuries of separateness and suspicion between witches and vampires, the plot veers into some of the cliches of supernatural romance: Possessiveness. A truly Gothic sense that they are Destined For Each Other Despite Obstacles.

I will give huge credit to Harkness, though. She’s one of the few authors I’ve seen who creates vampire romance without romanticizing the vampire… too much. As Diana draws closer to Matthew, Matthew, her family and his allies try to impress on Diana the beastly, dangerous nature of associating with a vampire. Does that count as realism? Comparative realism, especially in contrast to certain sparkling vampires, or vampires blithely drinking faux blood in bars.

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