A Discovery of Witches

Oh dear…

This book was thrust on me by my bookclub.  I’d never heard of the author (Deborah Harkness) before, but the title (which seemed on the suspect side) and a little bit of blurb managed to set my spider-senses tingling.  I succeeded in blocking it once or twice (we have a very democratic bookclub), but this time my resistence was overcome.  Fortunately, the copy I picked up was large print (my love affair with large print continues…).  I set my eyes to ‘speed-read’, and I was able to finish off the 876 page behemoth in about three hours.

These are the four categories of people in the world: humans (you’ve heard of them, right?); daemons, who seem pretty similar to humans but are more like to have genius level intellects and suffer from mental illness; fairly bog-standard vampires (they don’t quite sparkle, but it’s a close thing); and witches (both male and female), who have a tremendous array of stupidly powerful abiliities at their disposal (including time travel?!).  Collectively, these non-humans are referred to as ‘creatures’, which I felt led to some very awkward sentences (having to refer to your protagonist and heroine as a ‘creature’ just doesn’t seem right somehow).  While I found this effort at world-building inane and insipid, I did like her efforts to bring a genetics slant to this set-up.  One of the central problems of the book is that these ‘creatures’ may be dying out.  It seems likely that future books in the series will continue to develop the genetics theme as a means to solve this problem.

Diana Bishop is scion of a long line of well respected witches, but has had a hard time manifesting her powers.  Instead she’s tried to reject her witchy heritage and channel her efforts in to being a kick-ass historian.  Tediously precocious, she speeds through her degree and doctorate (from Oxford, where else), and easily gets tenure at Yalevard (it’s like Oxbridge, but American).  The book opens with her doing research in the Bodleian. She encounters a mysterious manuscript, the discovery of which triggers a lot of interest from diverse parties.

To her rescue gallops the tall, dark, and handsome Matthew Clairmont.  He’s a vampire, he owns a chateau in France, and he’s ever so romantic.  With his appearance, any last hopes I might have had that this was anything more than poorly-written paranormal romance were dashed.

I would like to go back through the book to find all of the horrendous instances of ham-handed depections of relationships, beyond-stereotyped characterisation, tediously predictable plot, and just consistently awful prose (I do not exaggerate — the phrase ‘as black as night’ was used without irony), but I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to do so.

The exemplar of this genre is the odious and abominable Twilight series (haven’t read ’em — still gonna judge ’em).  A Discovery of Witches has a few features that make me suspect that this might be a little more worthwhile.  The book is largely set in academia, which gives Harkness great opportunity to show off knowledge gleaned from her day job.  She herself is an academic and she has two non-fiction books under her belt (one dealing with John Dee, the other with the scientific revolution).  There’s clearly more than just a patina of scholarship here (though it does all seem a bit Dan Brown sometimes), and I definitely appreciated the details of history and mysticism that leaven the plot.  In fact, I was surprised and delighted at one point to find myself being reminded of Neal Stephenson.  This is what I was hoping for (though knowing it was unlikely) when I borrowed the book: something closer to Stephenson and Tim Powers than Stephenie Meyer.  Ah well…

In short: Did you like Twilight? If so, then you’ll like this too.

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