Today’s lesson: ignore book marketing. Why is it that as soon as one book becomes super popular, almost every novel released in the months that follow must inevitably be compared to it? (*cough50Shadescough*) I mean, I get that they’re following trends, and trying to push the book on an existing fan base, but this same tactic will basically ensure that somewhat snobby readers like me will not go near it. Which, in the case of A Discovery of Witches, would have been a huge loss for me.
The posters for A Discovery of Witches were pretty much everywhere for months, and every single one I saw compared the book to Twilight, with a couple of ads claiming this book was basically a mash-up of Twilight and Harry Potter. This only succeeded in pissing me off. Seriously, why would you want to compare a novel to one of the most poorly written books of our time? But I digress, and that is a topic for an entirely different post. Needless to say, I had no interest in reading what I thought was yet another YA novel about a beautiful young girl, vulnerable but with some sort hidden power, who falls in love with a handsome, brooding vampire. Buffy already did it best.
But then I read the actual description:
“When historian Diana Bishop opens a bewitched alchemical manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library it represents an unwelcome intrusion of magic into her carefully ordinary life. Though descended from a long line of witches, she is determined to remain untouched by her family’s legacy. She banishes the manuscript to the stacks, but Diana finds it impossible to hold the world of magic at bay any longer.
For witches are not the only otherworldly creatures living alongside humans. There are also creative, destructive daemons and long-lived vampires who become interested in the witch’s discovery. They believe that the manuscript contains important clues about the past and the future, and want to know how Diana Bishop has been able to get her hands on the elusive volume.
Chief among the creatures who gather around Diana is vampire Matthew Clairmont, a geneticist with a passion for Darwin. Together, Diana and Matthew embark on a journey to understand the manuscript’s secrets. But the relationship that develops between the ages-old vampire and the spellbound witch threatens to unravel the fragile peace that has long existed between creatures and humans—and will certainly transform Diana’s world as well.” (from the author’s website)
Obviously, I thought wrong. As it turns out, this book is centered around a woman in her early thirties (a doctor, no less!), who is already fully aware that the world is populated by 3 distinct types of creatures living alongside the clueless humans: manically creative daemons, scholarly vampires that don’t sparkle, and powerful witches. Diana is descended from a long line of witches, but after a traumatic event in her childhood, she refuses to use her powers. Instead, she manages to become a noted historian and professor, specializing in 17th century alchemy, all without the help of magic. But her carefully controlled life starts to unravel with the discovery of the mysterious and definitely magical alchemical manuscript Ashmole 782, which has been lost for centuries and sought by all manner of creatures. This forces her out of her comfort zone and into the arms of literature’s latest vampire dreamboat.
Now that I’ve read the book, I can (kinda) see why the above-mentioned comparisons were made. It’s got the whole “forbidden love with a vampire who’s tortured by his past” thing, but that plot line was around AGES before Twilight showed up, and A Discovery of Witches manages to keep it fresh. Sure, the vampire broods, but he’s got several lifetimes’ worth of reasons to, not to mention the fact that he’s still got plenty of danger and violence around him. At least when Matthew starts getting protective and controlling, Diana reacts like a grown woman should, namely, by calling him on his shit. In fact, when she finds out that Matthew had been snooping around her apartment while she slept, Diana is justifiably creeped out, which is much healthier than being flattered. As for the comparisons to Harry Potter, obviously there’s the whole magic thing. But more than that, I found that this book was able transport you into a lush, believable fantasy world that’s grounded in reality, which is what J.K. Rowling did so very well. I would actually add one more comparison to the list: The Da Vinci Code. The descriptions of the Bodleian library and of the alchemical manuscripts are incredibly detailed, without being boring, and the details of actual historic events are made more interesting by their connections to the characters, including stories of Diana’s ancestor’s connection to the Salem witch trials, or Matthew’s personal involvement in the Crusades.
After browsing the interwebs for more information on first-time novelist Deborah Harkness, it’s evident that the character of Diana Bishop is based on the author herself. The similarities between their lives are striking and surprising: Harkness is a historian who specializes in 15th to 17th century science and medicine, as well as a professor of history at the University of Southern California. She even discovered a lost manuscript in the Bodleian library, The Book of Soyga, written by noted alchemist John Dee. I have no idea if the book was magical or if Harkness is secretly a witch, but that is all kinds of awesome nonetheless.
This book turned out to be completely addictive. I devoured it in only a couple of sittings, and then rushed out to find the sequel (and then cried in frustration when I found out that the 3rdbook hasn’t even been written yet!). And I’m not the only one; I lent this book to a co-worker, only to have her show up late for work the next day, bleary-eyed and blaming me for the fact that she was up until 4 a.m. reading. It’s been a long time since I have been this invested in a group of characters, and I always appreciate references to historical details that I will totally Google and then feel smarter. Harkness’ ability to convey a realistic world filled with supernatural elements reminded me of my beloved Gaiman, and I can give no higher praise than that.