Saturday, September 1, 2012

Book review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Having had A Discovery of Witches recommended to me by both NPR and a friend at work, I had high hopes.  I would say that my hopes were completely dashed, but I was less than completely impressed.  Yes, this is a witches-and-vampires modern day fantasy.  But I have read enough sci-fi/fantasy to know that there are great books in the genre.  I'm not going with great for this one.

Our heroine, Diana Bishop, is a professor of history, taking some time at Oxford to do research for her latest book.  She's also a witch, from a long line of witches, although she doesn't actively practice witchcraft and tries to suppress her abilities.  When she calls a certain book out of the depths of the Bodleian Library, it's not what she thinks it is: it's an ensorcelled book, lost for centuries and reawakened just for her.  Diana is not the only one who can sense the power of the book, however, and soon Oxford is crawling with other witches, demons and vampires, all trying to get their hands on the volume.  Diana meets one vampire in particular, Matthew Clairmont, who is particularly drawn to her. She tries to resist his bloodsucking charms to no avail and soon they are caught up together, trying to find the book again after it disappears back into the library and trying to protect Diana from her re-emerging powers.

The plot is interesting enough - I liked all the history, and the second book in the series gets even more historical as Diana and Matthew travel back in time to the Middle Ages - but I wasn't crazy about the writing.  This is Harkness's first novel (she herself a professor of history at USC) and I felt as though she got bogged down in spots, going on for far too long about the food and wine the characters were consuming, for example.  Also, I didn't like how most of the book is told in the first-person, with Diana as narrator, except for several chapters where it switched to third-person, from Matthew's point of view.  Pick a POV, please.

A Discovery of Witches is a little like Twilight for smart people: better written, no teenage-angst but plenty of forbidden love, discussion of scholarly-type works ... for crying out loud, the first third is set in Oxford University - you can't get much smarter than that.  That's the theory, anyway.

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