Monday, July 9, 2012

Book Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A bit about the book: In a world filled with witches, vampires, and daemons, love seems out of reach. However, for one witch it just may come from the most unexpected place.

Diana Bishop (yes, descended from the Bishop you've heard of in connection with the Salem witch trials) is an academic, first and foremost. Although she is technically a witch, she has long denied her heritage, opting to live primarily in the real world rather than the magical one. However, on a work-related sojourn to Oxford as part of her Yale professorship, she is pulled quite unassumingly into the world of other beings. Upon requesting a manuscript from Oxford's library as part of her alchemy research, Diana unleashes a storm of magic too strong for her to ignore.

As creatures of all sorts descend on the library, drawn to the power they feel both from Diana and the manuscript, one particular vampire holds them at bay. Matthew Clairmont, a 1500-year-old vampire, is the only being powerful enough to protect Diana -- and to attempt to get his own hands on the manuscript in question. The mysteries surrounding Ashmole 782, the impenetrable manuscript, create a ripple in the supernatural community that threatens their world.

What are the secrets it holds? And what lengths will other creatures, including Matthew, go to to get what they want from Diana?

Why you want to read it: Although it seems the literary world (crossing over into movies, and television, of course) is already quite full enough of fantasy novels -- especially those featuring vampires -- Deborah Harkness's A Discovery of Witches is the one book everyone still needs to read. For one thing, Harkness's tale is no adolescent romance. Neither does it portray vampires as sex objects to be craved.

Instead, A Discovery of Witches is the thinking man and woman's answer to a new kind of fantasy writing. Harkness, a scholar much like her main character (although, we might presume, without the witch's capabilities), blends intelligent historical fact with fiction in the novel. She not only spins an amazingly good story, but she does so with a good vocabulary and little indulgence in typical vampire fiction feeding scenes. A Discovery of Witches is a well-crafted novel and couldn't be further from the Twilight series and other teen-vampire books.

I listened to the audio version of this book, via, and the performance by Jennifer Ikeda was phenomenal. The novel weighed in at a lengthy 24 hours (the print version is almost 600 pages long), but did not bore or disappoint. Although it took me quite a while to listen, hearing the story with Ikeda's narration was worth every second.

The bottom line: At last the world has been given an intelligent vampire novel. With the exception of perhaps Anne Rice's novels (which I haven't read), literature has recently been flooded with sub-par vampire writing, making the entire genre into a bit of a joke. Harkness's A Discovery of Witches, the first in a trilogy, turns that around. The novel makes it possible to enjoy good literature and a vampire-filled tale, all at the same time. Although ostensibly a novel about supernatural creatures and their history, Harkness expertly weaves in a love story, as well.

About the author: Deborah Harkness is a current professor of European history and the history of science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Having previously written two non-fiction titles, A Discovery of Witches is her first novel. It is also the first in the All Souls Trilogy series. You can find more information and connect with the author on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

Harkness's second novel will release in stores tomorrow. Check back then for my review of Shadow of Night.

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