Deborah Harkness’s debut novel A Discovery of Witches combines several elements I like—a great gothic house (and a castle), supernatural creatures (especially witches; I love witches), and academia. Diana Bishop, a rather reluctant witch and descendant of Bridget Bishop—the first “witch” executed in the Salem Witch Trials, is a professor researching the history of alchemy in Oxford’s Bodleian Library when she is able to call forth a manuscript called Ashmole 782, believed lost for over 150 years. Diana suddenly attracts the attention of several other creatures—witches, daemons, and a vampire named Matthew Clairmont. Soon the two make even more startling discoveries—hidden inside Diana’s DNA are predispositions for just about every magical power witches possess. Together they must discover what Ashmole 782’s secrets are; why her parents were murdered when she was a child; and why daemons, witches, and vampires want to prevent them from discovering anything (and from being together).
A review on Amazon describes this as a combination of The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter, and a romance, which is just about right, except I’d throw Twilight into the mix. It’s certainly better written than The Da Vinci Code and perhaps Twilight, but not Harry Potter. It must be hard to write about vampires right about now. For one thing, we want the strange Byronic dangerousness of the vampire, but we don’t like the whole murdering people to eat deal. We have, if you’ll pardon the pun, taken the fangs out of our vampires. Edward Cullen is a great example of this phenomenon, and Matthew Clairmont is not terribly different. Despite the author’s attempts to tell us otherwise, he never comes across the page as very dangerous. Nor do any of his “family.” The vampires that do seem frightening are all bad guys. Despite lacking some teeth, they are fairly charming. I particularly liked Marcus. For astute readers, there’s a reference to another famous vampire in chapter 13 (I think—it’s hard to keep track when you’re listening) that vampire fans will enjoy. Harkness also dispenses with some of the vampire myths—her vampires can go out in the sun without incinerating (or sparkling).
I actually liked the witches much better, especially Diana’s aunts Sarah and Em. Sarah has a sort of hardened no-nonsense way of speaking, and Em is just sweet. I absolutely love their house. I won’t spoil it for those of you who want to read it. The daemons confuse me. I can’t tell what they are that makes them different from humans except for exceptional creativity and intelligence. They don’t seem to have any supernatural powers like vampires or witches. Harkness’s witches, I understand, but I would have liked to have understood her vampires better.
I think I enjoyed this book on audio perhaps more than I might have in print because Jennifer Ikeda was such a great reader. She can do a variety of accents easily—French, Australian, and Scottish. She made each character sound different and instantly recognizable. I did find myself wishing I were reading the hardcover in some parts so I could easily flip around and check things.
However, I admit I don’t care a lot for the main characters, Diana and Matthew. Are they just grown up versions of Bella and Edward? Well, kind of. Diana is Bella with a little bit more self-esteem and attitude, maybe. The descriptions of the places, the food, and the other characters made me keep listening, and I enjoyed it enough to read the sequel, which I might enjoy more because of where it will be set (a bit spoilery, so I won’t give it away). Diana and Matthew are a strange couple. They seem a little forced together as though they were set up by a good friend and are trying to make a go of it without really feeling any sparks.
It’s a worthy debut, and I think it will likely be fairly popular. Despite my feelings about the main characters, I did enjoy the book and look forward to the next one.
Diana’s aunts Sarah and Em and Matthew’s best friend Hamish qualify this book for the GLBT Challenge. The supernatural elements and ancient houses make for a great Gothic Reading Challenge read. I need to read 17 more books for the Gothic Reading Challenge.