Adult Contempory Fantasy Fiction
So, I picked this up based on a review by my good friend Annie, who blogs over at Textual Frigate. Our tastes overlap, although sometimes I wonder what the hell she was on when she recommended Book X that I threw at the wall 50 pages in. And I'm sure she's thought the same about me, but that's what makes for a good friendship. However, with this book, I am wholly grateful for her recommendation, just like the time she got me hooked on the Discworld series. Anyway! The book!
A Discovery of Witches is a contemporary fantasy that opens in Oxford's Bodleian Library where Diana Bishop, a witch who tries to deny her powers and live as a normal human scholar, is researching alchemical texts. She calls up one manuscript, the enchanted Ashmole 782, and in doing so, draws the attention of vampire Matthew Clairmont (and a whole host of other creatures) and sets in motion a dangerous series of events.
You can read the synopsis on any number of websites, but what sucked me into this story were Harkness's incredible world building and the two main characters, Diana and Matthew. As Annie noted in her review, “This is what Twilight could have been with a better heroine...And if it had a better writer.” Diana is strong, stubborn (often to the point of recklessness), passionate and crazy smart. Matthew is complex, with a rich back story you might expect from someone over a thousand years old which is revealed in delicate turns by Harkness.
My one peeve with this book, well, besides the fact that I have to wait til next summer for the next book in the trilogy, is the way Harkness messes with the vampire mythology. Thankfully, there is none of this sparkly vampire nonsense, but vampires can go out in the daylight but don't often do so because it would be too hard to conceal their true nature from the humans. However, Harkness's choice serves the story well and her characters are so complex and interesting that to confine the vampires to this mythology would actually do the story a disservice, so by the end of the story, I forgot my peeves entirely and just got caught up in the story.
One critique against the story I read was that some readers were put off by the high level of detail Harkness put into her world building, particularly in describing the Bodleian, which is integral to the plot. One reviewer dismissed the details as Harkness showing off how well she knew or researched Oxford. But for me, I thought it was brilliant. Perhaps it is because I'm a librarian and scholar, but the details pulled me right in and made me almost start planning for applications for a Rhodes Scholarship and outlining my dissertation, just so I could take a seat in one of the reading rooms. And I think the level of detail was appropriate. A Discover of Witches clocks in at 579 pages, which gives Harkness plenty of room to build up the history of the struggle of witches and vampires and daemons, the creatures of this world. Oh, and so far there have also been ghosts and at least one goddess. Anyway, the detail of the world is always in service of the plot and character development, and I kind of want to read the book again, slowly this time, and bask in Harkness's craft. And this is her first novel! According to her bio, Harkness has written a couple books on the history of science and a blog on wine., both of which show up in the novel and richly add to the details of the story. But damn, I don't know how long it took to write this novel, but I am really in awe of her craft. It is certainly firing up my own creative desires, which have been in a funk lately.
I am very glad I stepped out of my comfortable reading rut and picked up this novel. If you like stories with the paranormal, a little romance (sweetly rendered, perfectly captured to leave the reader wanting more), history, expert world building and excellent characters, do yourself a favor, block out some time, and sit down with A Discovery of Witches. And I am very sorry you'll have to wait til next summer for the sequel.