Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Vampire Does Yoga: Review of _A Discovery of Witches_ by Deborah E. Harkness

Deborah E. Harkness, A Discovery of Witches: A Novel (All Souls Trilogy Book 1) (2011)

In part, this novel is about the thrill of archival research-- of holding in your hands some old, fragile text from another world.  (No surprise that author Deborah E. Harkness has a doctorate in History!)  The plot centers on a fifteenth-century alchemical work that historian Diana Bishop, a non-practicing descendent of Salem witches, immediately perceives to be enchanted-- but that she returns to the Bodleian stacks without examining magically.  Soon, however, she finds herself stalked by a bunch of other supernatural creatures intent on accessing that particular book, which (apparently) jumps only to Diana's call slip.  Oh yes, and it's rumored to contain some paradigm-busting material...
Image: Open Library

And then, she falls in love with a vampire.  It's problematic.  In this case, he's also an eminent scientist who loves yoga to the point of hosting mixed-species (witch-vampire-daemon) classes at his ancestral estate. Hip, sensitive, and tolerant?  Unlike Twilight's Edward, Matthew still occasionally preys on humans-- and Diana's choice to overlook the sheer horror of his diet takes moral relativism to new lows.  Oddly, it also strikes me as pre-feminist... The romance element, I thought, was unconvincing at the start (I didn't buy that these two had chemistry), but improved as the novel progressed.  Plus, I enjoyed his love of wine and the spot-on scholarly atmosphere that these characters channelled.  It was the yoga that made me giggle.

You'd think that sparks-flying, spell-casting witchery would make me giggle, too, but A Discovery of Witches interprets magic as a natural extension of emotion and intellect.  Just one moment-- Diana's realization of her unconscious use of magic in historical synthesis-- does wonders to ground the fantasy.  I'll admit that I'm also a sucker for conversations with the dead.

Unfortunately, the novel's fun plot lines are also clogged with wardrobe dilemmas (should Diana wear the black turtleneck or the black sweater??), decorating schemes, and chunks of backstory on characters who haven't yet raised the reader's curiosity.  There were times when I wanted to give up on the book altogether-- and other times when I couldn't put it down if you paid me!   So go into it expecting long stalls and sudden lunges; and on approaching the end, be prepared for an immediate urge to download the sequel, Shadow of Night.  (I'd have done so by now if my library offered the Kindle edition, but naturally the publisher would rather I buy it, grumble grumble.)

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