A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness


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22 of 52 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

A Discovery of Witches is basically this year’s Twilight. It’s a vampire love story. The main character, Diana, is more grown up than Bella. She’s grown up enough to have a PhD and a job at Yale. She’s still going through a coming of age experience, magically speaking, however. The twist on the Help-Me-I’ve-Fallen-in-Love-With-a-Vampire plot is that our heroine is a witch, a very powerful one who is only just starting to understand the extent of her power.

Yes, this is a total guilty pleasure read. I’m not going to even try to pretend it is anything else despite the fact that is does come packaged with a good dosing of real history, even real scientific history. This is pure escapism, and I’m not ashamed to say I enjoyed it.

Pretty much every cliche of the witchy genre shows up. Diana is a descendant of Salem witches. She has a great interest in the history of alchemy, including of course the philosopher’s stone. I think every book I’ve read lately has mentioned the philosopher’s stone. That was clever when JK Rowling did it, but I’m ready to move on now. Please, fantasy writers, do some research and find another interesting and quirky belief of early scientists.

That said, I like the take on what the stone is in A Discovery of Witches. I also found the story in general absorbing. I found it so absorbing that it made me angry when I reached the end only to realize the story doesn’t end here. This is the first book of three, and the other two have not yet been published. If I had known that, I might have waiting until they were all out before I read any of them. I like to read my trilogies as a whole. As it is, I’ll just have to wait my turn for the next book like everyone else.

I find the characters in this book admirable and likeable even if I do think the love story itself gets a little over-the-top at times. I also find the story, cliches and all, smart and engaging. What I most like, though, is that Harkness does not fall into the Sookie Stackhouse trap of going purely for the trash appeal. If I’m tired of everyone trying to cash in on the philosopher’s stone, I’m absolutely exhausted with the trend toward combining supernatural elements with every imaginable counter-culture element. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a True Blood fan. I just don’t think every book about supernatural creatures needs to be so focused on sex and drugs that it becomes nearly pornographic. In recent years, that’s what we’ve seen so much of. This vein of fantasy fiction involving witches and vampires has either been classified as Young Adult fiction, or it has pushed the limits of socially allowable trash.

Harkness doesn’t do that. A Discovery of Witches is a book written for adults that does not take place in seedy bars. It actually mostly happens in a research library. I find that incredibly refreshing. I feel like an old lady saying this, but there you have it. I’ve grown tired of books that romanticize debauchery, and I was happy to read a book that romanticized the acquisition of knowledge instead.

Not that the characters don’t have their human weaknesses…or humamish weaknesses as the case may be. They do. They just also have more than their share of noble intentions. I like to reserve my disillusionment for realism. If I’m engaging in a little escapism, I do prefer to enter into a world in which noble intentions motivate the characters.

Again I sound like the old lady, but so be it. I liked this book. I look forward to the next in the series.

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