27 February 2012

Review 19: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

"It begins with absence and desire. It begins with blood and fear. It begins with a discovery of witches. A world of witches, daemons and vampires. A manuscript which holds the secrets of their past and the key to their future. Diana and Matthew - the forbidden love at the heart of it."

What an embarrassing blurb. Whilst this novel does tend towards somewhat overwrought melodrama, it is, on the whole, far better and far less dependant on the romantic element than that blurb implies. I found this story of magic, romance and history a pleasant respite from more weighty reading. It is not a difficult read, but it is a fun and romantic read with a largely awesome heroine, wonderful settings, pacy plotting and a healthy portion of history wound through it. Ultimately, it is a vampire romance (even though the woman is a witch so less helpless than usual) though so be warned.

First Line: 'The leather-bound volume was nothing remarkable.'

Diana is an American historian currently working and studying in Oxford. This wins points for me immediately, as I studied history at university and am a librarian now so all the talk of libraries and research and documents is right up my alley. Diana is studying the history of alchemy and the novels opens as she has recalled books from the university library. Diana is also a witch, albeit one who has repressed her magic as she associates it with the death of her witch parents and has decided to live without it. One of the books she recalls reveals itself to be magical as she opens it, and it later turns out to be a long lost manuscript that the three magical communities (witches, vampires and daemons) have been searching for for centuries that Diana has unwittingly discovered. Very quickly Diana meets Matthew, a very old, very powerful vampire and begin to try and work out together what the manuscript means and why everyone wants it. Predictably, along the way, they fall in love in a pretty all consuming, epic way. The novel zips all over the place; from Oxford to France to America and has a large cast of interesting characters that propel the novel forward.

The novel is narrated by Diana and this means it is all very focused on what is currently happening and at times feels like a stream of consciousness rather than a carefully plotted novel. The language has a tendency to become very action-orientated with little time to reflect on much other than the romance. By and large, the romance works and Diana is a very likeable, competent heroine. She is able to fend for herself and despite her magic being restricted, it is made clear that she has the potential to be incredibly powerful. However, Matthew is rather domineering and expects Diana to do what he says and at times I found him a little irritating but unfortunately I think a large part of this is being tainted by the strong vampire/weak woman trope that is so common in fantasy romances and being sensitive to them. They also get married and Diana doesn't realise they are married under vampire lore until afterwards which seems somewhat bizarre - not that she has a problem with it when she realises but still, you think it would have been nice for her to known beforehand. Entertainingly, Matthew is constantly warning Diana about not falling in love with a vampire with comments such as, 'You mustn't romanticise vampires', which is pretty much the culture that this novel is directly adding to, that of the tortured romantic hero.

Ultimately, there were some flaws in the writing that sometimes took you out of the story but the story itself was strong enough to carry you through. I will definitely read the sequel, although probably not with any urgency, as I'm interested (rather than excited) to see where Harkness goes next and (spoiler alert) the next part of the story takes place in sixteenth-century England, a period I am really interested in. Lots of interesting elements and characters ensure that this is an enjoyable and fun read, it lagged a little in the third quarter but picked up again for a dramatic finale. One for fans of supernatural romance (which is really the centre of the story) with a bit of history and science thrown in there.

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