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Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness


A richly inventive novel about a centuries-old vampire, a spellbound witch, and the mysterious manuscript that draws them together.

Deep in the stacks of Oxford's Bodleian Library, young scholar Diana Bishop unwittingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript in the course of her research. Descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana wants nothing to do with sorcery; so after a furtive glance and a few notes, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery sets a fantastical underworld stirring, and a horde of daemons, witches, and vampires soon descends upon the library. Diana has stumbled upon a coveted treasure lost for centuries-and she is the only creature who can break its spell.

Debut novelist Deborah Harkness has crafted a mesmerizing and addictive read, equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense. Diana is a bold heroine who meets her equal in vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont, and gradually warms up to him as their alliance deepens into an intimacy that violates age-old taboos. This smart, sophisticated story harks back to the novels of Anne Rice, but it is as contemporary and sensual as the Twilight series-with an extra serving of historical realism.

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Probably one of the best books I've read in a long time. It kept me enthralled from page one all the way to the end, trying to guess which way the twists and turns of the story were taking me. Rarely did I guess right, though, as this book keeps you guessing, and continues to surprise you time and time again. Sometimes I guessed right though, but even then there was usually some twist involved that I hadn't seen coming right alongside the bit that I had figured out ahead of time. To try to sum up my reactions and thoughts about this book in a relatively short review hardly seems possible, but I'll do my humble best.



Ms. Harkness has created a world that is incredibly rich and multi-layered, full of complicated social and political relationships amongst the "creatures" - i.e., witches, vampires, and daemons - that mostly involve each group largely shunning and vilifying the others though various exceptions to the norm of prejudice do exist. There is a great deal brewing beneath the surface, most of which very few are aware of, including the main characters in the story despite the fact that some of them at least are far more "in the know" about things than most creatures. By the end of the book, several of the long-kept secrets have been revealed, but it's also clear that they've only just begun to scratch the surface of things, and that when and if the whole of it, or even just a larger portion of the whole, has been brought to light, the world as they've known it will be irrevocably changed for all time, and likely beyond all recognition. Cliche perhaps, but also very true in the case of this book I believe.

Diana Bishop is witch who has long shunned magic and witchcraft and uses it as little as possible. She keeps track of every time she allows herself to use magic, keeping a yearly tally, and when she ticks off a fifth time of using magic in the current year in late September, she notes to herself that it's not a bad count, but also not a personal best. Her long-standing practice of avoiding magic is almost immediately challenged at the beginning of the book when she by happenstance in the course of her usual research routine calls up an enchanted volume in the Bodleian Library. This seemingly random occurrence is the catalyst that sets all the other events of the book in motion, at least as far as Diana's involvement in things in concerned. Much later she and the others around her begin to suspect that that event wasn't really the beginning of it all, but I won't go into that here to avoid giving out too many spoilers.

Despite her distrust, and even fear, of magic and witchcraft, Diana is a very strong and independent character. She's endeavored all her life to excel in mundane ways, to earn respect both professionally and personally through good old-fashioned hard work and dedication, and NOT by using magic to give her "unfair" advantages over her human colleagues and peers. She exhibits exceptional bravery time and time again as events unfold, and though she does have her blind spots, and various personal demons to wrangle with, eventually she learns to not only accept her magic but also to embrace it, and when push comes to shove she almost never hesitates in doing what she must to succeed, endure, or simply just survive. Her independent nature makes it difficult for her to let others take charge and give the orders, and she nearly always insists on being allowed to make her own decisions about what to do in a given situation. Usually this involves refusing to back down or to back off and let others handle things while she remains safe, but not always, for she does also know when to give up control to someone else, at least temporarily, and let others manage things for her and keep her safe until she's had time to rest and regroup and is ready to take up the reins herself once more.

Matthew Clairmont is an ancient vampire who is currently living as an Oxford professor and part-time doctor. From the first time we meet him, it is clear that he is a man used to being in charge, and one who is unused to his orders being questioned even, let alone ignored and/or defied, as Diana often does (or tries to do - she doesn't always get away with it). Autocratic and rigid, he at first seems very cold, and while clearly a man of impeccable honor, he doesn't necessarily seem to be someone that one would want to try to get to know very well, or even remain in his presence more than was absolutely necessary, and such is Diana's initial reaction to him - she instinctively tries to avoid him. Events beyond their control quickly make that impossible, however, and it isn't long before we see signs that Matthew's attitude and feelings toward her are softening, as are hers for him. Habits acquired over centuries are hellishly hard to break, however, and so no matter how much he may eventually learn to relax and let loose of some of his secrets, so many of his behaviors have become so ingrained in his personality over time, or are too much intrinsically a part of his vampiric nature, that he never fully relinquishes them, and almost always falls back to the cold and autocratic demeanor when faced with a crisis or a fight. And while he is a decidedly different person by the end of the book from what he was like at the beginning, it's clear that the old Matthew is not gone, and it is hinted that we'll seem him returning more fully to his old behaviors, and even worse than he was at the start, at least for awhile, as the series continues. While I'll admit that I didn't care for him very much though much of the first third or half of the book, he eventually won me over, and I can only hope that not too much of who he's become will be lost as they face the challenges ahead of them.

All in all, a fabulous book that I would highly recommend to anyone who is at all interested in fantasy, paranormal topics, romance, or even just in fiction with a high IQ that is loaded with scholarly references and topics. The amount of the latter, and the amount of research that went into them, is truly staggering, and I was continually blown away by the numerous high-level academic and/or esoteric references that are constantly thrown out, usually in a rather casual manner. A resounding 5 stars to this book, and I'd go even higher if the system here allowed it.

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