1.21.2012

Review: A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches, a novel
by Deborah Harkness
Penguin Books
Now available in paperback
All vampire stories of the last century and a half may be called derivative. Mythology and folklore aside, any vampire novel you come across today may trace it roots back to the poems and short stories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The best known is probably Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) but there were many instances of vampires in fiction prior to that. The stories (especially now) are often very similar: vampires drink blood; they seduce young women; they're often beautiful, poised and rich; they move very quickly; they burst into flames with the sun...

In more recent years, vampires have become something else - especially in literature. They still drink blood but, more often than not, they have a conscience that keeps them from drinking human blood with any regularity. This is a way for an author to get around what is now a kind of boring bump in the night story about vampires who sleep in coffins, but it's also something that teenagers and young adults seem to gravitate towards -- this idea that these humanized monsters who were once human can also feel...it's very angsty...it's very teen drama...teenagers who find themselves as outsiders, and on the fringes, are keen to identify with these pale, beautiful creatures who are just so misunderstood.

Take the Twilight saga for example: little girl lost moves to a new town, people like her but she just feels so very not like everyone else, and then she meets this handsome pasty glittery thing who wants to make all her dreams come true...except he also wants to drain her of her lifeforce: teen drama.

Deborah Harkness' A Discovery of Witches has a similar modus operandi: young woman, on the fringes because she herself is a witch (or, in Diana Bishop's case, denying that she is a witch) bewitches (haha) a vampire with her beautiful ordinariness...he wants to protect her and love her...but also wants to drain her of her lifeforce. Like I said, the stories are often very similar. And while reading A Discovery of Witches, you might find (as I did) many (oh so many) parallels between it and Stephenie Meyer's tetralogy.

Some Basic Examples:
1. Matthew creeps into Diana's apartment and stares at her while she sleeps.
2. Like Bella, who does not see her own beauty (gag me), Diana sees herself as a "gauche country mouse" next to her vampire love.
3. Diana tells Matthew “You won’t hurt me” – literally ripped from the Twilight headlines - if it's not in the books, it's definitely in the movie.
4. “The Congregation” is basically the Volturi, and Ysabeau points out that they can't interfere if Diana is also a vampire...sound familiar?
5. Marcus' rebirth is almost the same as Edward's story of becoming a vampire.
6. Both Matthew and Edward proclaim that their immortal lives will end when their mortal love dies.

And those are just the ones I marked with post-its. There were plenty more. 

But even given its core structure as basically a chip off of the Twilight block, there's something more here. Literally. This is not just about vampires. There are three kinds of "creatures" other than humans - vampires, witches and daemons. And none of them adhere strictly to their classical roots. Harkness has created a world full to the brim with magic, a powerful and ancient magic at that. And its a world all her own. There are extensive histories and anecdotes along the plot's path - it's a little gratuitous, but it's never too much. These instances and facts are interesting and motivate the reader to keep moving along.  It's got a bildungsroman feel to it, which can draw comparisons with J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, but it's less about learning particular spells and more about learning just how powerful Diana is without them. 

And the characters, as many as there are, each with their separate and explained histories, are all so very individual. Even her architectural structures have character. The Bishop home is quite possibly my favorite character in the entire book. Harkness' writing, compared with Meyer's, is lush and romantic like her story. This is not a teen melodrama. This is not little girl lost. It crackles with energy and leaves room for zero dull moments. There was not a single instance (unlike with New Moon) when I wanted to skip ahead to the "good parts." Diana is not a misunderstood girl at a new school - she's a well-established scholar, a strong and sympathetic and powerful woman, who cannot yet conceive of how very powerful she is. 

I've heard a lot of people suggest that A Discovery of Witches is "Twilight for adults." Well I've seen some pretty advanced-in-age women clamor over Twilight, so I don't think the metaphor works. Rather, this is definitely a much more mature book than the entire Twilight series put together. The romance is slower, more patient. The characters are strong, lacking in whininess (unless that's a facet of the character in particular) and commanding. And the plot...well the plot is pretty similar to a lot of things because it's tried and true. But the best part is that there are still two whole novels left...all this exposition, all of this derivativeness, it has a chance to go away now. Harkness was able to take two characters - very similar in basic structure to Meyer's eye-rollable Bella and Edward - and actually made me want to read two more books about them. 

Book 2 of the series (named The All Souls Series), Shadow of Night is due out in hardcover this summer. 

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