A second look at A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness
Among the publicity reviews for this book was, ‘Twilight for grownups’, a comment sure to have any discerning bibliophile throwing this one into the bin. I had run out of things to read and was looking at a long journey, so I thought I’d give this one a try. It had to be better than listening to drunk people recount their greatest football moments on the train.
And, it was. It’s the story of Diana, an American academic who does her best to ignore the fact that she’s a witch and finds herself the center of attention from all of the ‘creatures, vampires, daemons, and witches around Oxford, when she accidentally calls up a book that has been missing for over 100 years. It is because of this that she meets Matthew, a dark and brooding vampire scientist, drawn to Diana’s fragility and her ability to faint at the end of every other chapter. Matthew goes on about how dangerous he is, and Diana, only somewhat believing him, insists that love is what counts.
This however, is not Twilight. While it does bog down in a romance novel in the middle, with them frolicking in the countryside at a French castle Matthew built for his vampire family, Harkness manages to regain the story, pulling all of the many plot threads she introduced in the beginning while name-dropping points around Oxford. As both of the main characters are academics, they know quite a bit about history and the minutia of historical characters, which is mostly handled alright for those of us who don’t know movers and shakers in history as rock stars. And for those of us who do know mitochondrial DNA, the explanations here run a little thin, and perhaps seems a little shaky for anyone unfamiliar with it. (Bryan Sykes’ book, The Seven Daughters of Eve, which is named in the acknowledgements, is about how everyone descended from a European woman belongs to only one of seven lineages of mitochondria. Not everyone in the world, as mentioned here about mitochondria.) There are reminiscences from the vampires about different periods of history, and stories from the witches who keep their family histories with pride.
‘Twilight for grown ups’ really is the most accurate summary of this book. No, these vampires don’t sparkle; they do yoga. But, it’s the end of the phrase that is the important part, ‘for grown ups’. This book isn’t Twilight. It was written by a grown up for grown ups, with more nuances, more realistic (ish) relationships, and characters with lives, stories, and interests. And more plot! There are enough plot lines here to engage anyone, murdered parents, magic books, pregnant hippie daemons, the Congregation acting like the Inquisition, Diana trying to learn magic, Matthew’s murky and violent secrets, even if you need to skip over the frolicking section. I’ll be honest, if I don’t have anything lined up when the next book comes out, I’ll probably go back and give the sequel a try, as long as the vampires go sparkle someone else’s eyes and the mysteries of history keep coming thick and fast.