A Discovery of Witches: Harkness' Alchemy Hits the Mark

BlogHer Review

A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness, was a pleasant surprise.

I admit, I was looking forward to a nice read, even though I was leery of the premise: Witch meets Vampire and they can’t resist forbidden love. Trite.

And yet, there’s more to this story than that.

Much more. One just has to forgive a few things in the first chapter to find it.

When I first started reading, I found myself distracted by little technical things: a misplaced apostrophe that created a grammar error on page 7, several commas that should have been semi-colons, and run on sentences desperately trying to wedge in a few chapters worth of history into a single paragraph.

Now, I recognize that those over-full sentences are common in today’s books. And I know why writers do it; most readers are impatient to get to the story, and don’t want to spend a lot of time reading the background to learn where a character comes from or what motivates him or her. But few writers do it so well that you don’t notice they’re cramming backstory down your throat fast enough to make you choke. Alas, Deborah Harkness hasn’t quite mastered that trick.

Luckily, Deborah also doesn’t plague you with the backstory flood for very long. By Chapter 2, we’re into the story, and the Witch we meet, a laptop using historian of alchemy and the history of science who does not use her powers, is pretty interesting. True, the concept of “witch who refuses to use her powers” is also a bit over-used, but this book does some interesting things with it. I’d tell you, but that would spoil a bunch of the good stuff at the end for you.

Instead, I’ll pause to revel in the fun of following an historian through a day poring over manuscripts so old one daren’t touch them without gloves on. The attention to detail on how one gets to look at these manuscripts, and then how one handles them is delightful, and subtle. I didn’t feel at all bashed over the head, just quietly informed.

Even more fun is the information we glean from reading along with our protagonist. This is where this book truly got me. Deborah Harkness invites us to dabble in the history of science, and alchemy with her. She gives real information, and puts quite a bit of it in a new and intriguing light, but doesn’t bludgeon us with it. I found it enticing enough to want to go learn more. As it turns out, many of the texts mentioned in the book are real, and one can find copies (or books written about them) in good library. While the critical text in the story, a manuscript on alchemy originally collected by a man named Ashmole isn’t real -- the man was, and one can go read about him; his collection of alchemical texts is even available at a certain on line bookstore!

I fretted again, when we first met the vampire. His description threatened to take us straight back to the land of clichés: the “most unnerving thing about him was not his physical perfection. It was his feral combination of strength, agility, and keen intelligence that was palpable across the room.” P 18-19. Really? At this point, our heroine, Diana, had not even met the man, er vampire; she’d only seen him across the room, where he was standing, not performing feats of strength or agility. And yes, he’s cold to the touch too. And yes, he’s fabulously wealthy, and owns mansions and castles. And yes, there’s a bit about how he finds this woman, this witch, all but irresistible because her blood “sings” to him. Thankfully, he’s never described as being like marble.

Once again, despite a flirting with the clichés, Deborah takes her character and makes him interesting. While the modern Witch is studying alchemy; the centuries old vampire is doing genetic research, and studying both regular DNA and mitochondrial DNA. And they both do yoga.

The storyline also skirted the hackneyed – forbidden love, dangerous vampires etc – but once again, Harkness takes this now somewhat standard premise and does wonderful things with it. She gives both the witch and the vampire rich family histories, and lets us meet the families. She puts all sorts of historical events and places in a new context as she shows us how vampires and witches have had their impact on the world around us.

And she leaves the warts on (not literal warts of course). Vampires and witches are as guilty of prejudice and bigotry as any human; and just like human history, it’s interesting to watch people learn the reasons behind some of the old prejudices. It’s even more interesting to see them learn that some were meant to protect them in older times, but that maintaining them now is dangerous.

There’s too much going on for this book to finish well, and it didn’t. Harkness leaves us wondering why we didn’t learn more about the daemons (the third race of supernatural folk). But worse yet, she created a big problem, but didn’t solve it. She got everyone safely out of danger, and set things up nicely for the problem to be solved in a sequel, but left everything hanging. Clearly, this is book one of more than one. I’d have been happier about that if I’d known going in that this was only Act One. That said, I’m eagerly looking forward to the sequel, and hope it comes out soon!

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