It's a GOOD vampire novel, I promise!
By Rebecca Kling on June 21, 2011
I need to warn you up front: Deborah Harkness' novel, A Discovery of Witches is part one of a trilogy, and the second book isn't scheduled to come out until next year. I say "warn you" because I made it a third of the way through the book before I read the dust jacket and learned the tale of Dr. Diana Bishop wouldn't be complete for a few more years. And already, a third of the way into the first book, I knew I wanted to read the whole trilogy.
In some ways, A Discovery of Witches fits many of the usual vampire novel expectations. Diana Bishop is the last in the line of Bishop witches, a family which stretches back to Salem and beyond. She meets, befriends, and is inevitably drawn into a romantic relationship with Matthew Clairmont, a dashing vampire hundreds of years old. Together, they venture their way through a world of witchcraft, magic, evil creatures, and unexpected allies. Except, if that were the entirety of the book, I wouldn't really care. That plot is a dime a dozen these days. Fortunately, A Discovery of Witches manages to buck the trend of cliche vampire romance novels, and actually tell a good story.
Most importantly is the character of Diana Bishop herself. She's a historian who spends much of her time in Oxford's libraries. She's made a decision to eschew magic in an effort to prove her academic chops without supernatural chops. Indeed, much of the book involves her trying not to look for adventure. (A nice change from the vapid "heroines" of Twilight and its ilk.) And yet, when her power does begin to manifest and become a major plot point, she's able to hold her own. This isn't a book about a weak woman being saved by a strong vampire. This is a book about a strong woman and a strong man (admittedly, a vampire...) saving each other.
The bulk of the plot's drama involves an enchanted book, a manuscript called Ashmole 782, and the various "creatures" (the book's name for supernatural entities) who want it: witches, vampires, and daemons. Since the manuscript is hundreds of years old itself, Diana is a historian, and Matthew is very (very, very) old, A Discovery of Witches is also a fun peek into an alternate history populated by magic. Name dropping abounds, and discussion of this or that historical figure being a witch or vampire or daemon never ceased to amuse me. Likewise, while the book is undeniably a romantic adventure (or adventurous romance) it's all well written and, at times, funny:
"Let her speak, Sarah," Em said. "We trust Diana to make the right decisions, remember?"
The ensuing silence let me to believe that this had been a matter of some controversy.
Diana and Matthew attend yoga together, something you probably won't see in many supernatural romance books.
And, of course, there are some good sex scenes, too.
Which isn't to say A Discovery of Witches is flawless. For all its fun, it's still a vampire novel, with all that entails. I'd say it's the best vampire novel I've read in quite some time, but you probably already have a good idea whether or not you're going to like this book. It's not particularly deep, and the plot twists aren't particularly surprising. For all that, it's a great summer read, and I look forward to the next installment.
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