Oh no, not another love story about romance with a vampire! However Deborah Harkness' book, A Discovery of Witches is more for adults (although there is no sex in this first installment of The All Souls Trilogy) and the witches can be pretty kick a$$ if they try. The story begins with Diana Bishop, a witch who wants to 'pass' as human (a la Samantha Stevens) so she has devoted herself to studying science from a historical perspective. Despite Bishop's disregard for being a witch she comes from a long line of talented magical families on both sides of her family tree. She gave up magic as a child after her parents were killed. As she is prepping for an upcoming symposium she looks through a centuries old alchemist manuscript which she quickly realizes is spellbound. Despite her lack of magical training the book opens for her but when she finds nothing of interest she returns it to the librarian where the book's spell reverts back to lock up its secrets.
When Diana returns to the library following an uneventful weekend she notices that a vampire is watching her. Apparently despite her discretion the word on the street is that she has discovered the long missing Ashmole 782 that all of the non-human races of the world have been on the search for centuries. BTW, the non-human folks in Harkness' universe are daemons, witches, and vampires. As this genre dictates Diana falls in love with the rugged genius gent vampire who is an Oxford professor engaged in DNA research. He also does yoga on the side because, you know, that is how he rolls. His name is Mathew Clairmont.
Discovery started out strong but soon got caught up in the epic that Harkness wants her All Souls Trilogy to be, but doesn't build the right literary foundation to pull it off. Towards the end it felt as if she had thrown in every vampire romance/wacky witch/Harry Potter/Twilight cliche and then added some more. Although she wants her reading audience to perceive Diana Bishop as a strong self-assured woman she comes across as wimpy and selfish especially in regards to her family because her romance (which is only a few weeks old) puts them in danger. Harkness deflates all the traits she tried to sell her readers about Diana when she has her fall quickly for Michael -- as in that special kind of love that occurs in places called Forks.
As for Michael, his character traits are all over the place. First you have a peaceful yoga practicing vampire and then there is the one who is always unsettled and always on the verge of attack, there is the ground breaking DNA researcher, and then you have the knight of yore who is duty bond to protect the weak from the wicket. All of this and still he reads as if he has a personality of a stale ham sandwich. For his character to work Michael has to have something beyond perfect looks and lightening fast speed. A quirk would help, maybe some humor, something besides how Harkness has written him in her first installment. With that said, I found the secondary characters actually more interesting in both their back stories and their personalities despite being vampires, daemons, or witches.
Another issue with the novel was that Harkness wrote common terms for things as if her audience had never heard of such terminology. For instance, when one vampire makes another the new vampire refers to their sire as their 'maker' which was an idiom her character Diana had never heard before. I know that the book isn't dealing with reality, but the idea of a vampire maker is a pretty common one for novels of this nature. Then there was the part where Diana had never heard the term mitochondrial DNA. I don't hold a Ph.D., but I am aware of mitochondrial DNA, so at least a history professor of science would have at some point come across the word before. I'm not saying that these ideas shouldn't be defined; I'm noting that it is inconsistent for a character who is supposed to be aware of the existence of vampires and studies science not to know these things and therefore it discredits the plot.
Harkness has some good things going in Discovery for instance the mysterious book, the idea of time travel, even the house that rearranges itself so always have a guest room ready even if guests weren't initially expected. I should note that even though I enjoyed the house part it didn't fit in well with the storyline of events that had happened prior. The second installment, Shadow of Night, is scheduled to debut later this summer which might make the series more interesting since it takes place in Elizabethan London. With that in mind, some of the disjointed elements in the first book might make for a better second novel since at least one of the characters has had the experience of living a modern life.
Overall, I would recommend A Discovery of Witches with some reservations. It comes in at 579 pages ergo it is more of a time commitment than most novels of this genre. I thought it was a fun book and despite its flaws it did keep me engaged. The real test of course is if a reader is willing to read the next novel in the series and I am except it isn't the type of book that I would want to buy in hardback, but if it is released in paperback I'll commit to it. I feel it is the type of novel that reads well on a porch versus a book you might take to a pool. I doubt it will make a mark in the industry like Stephenie Meyer's Twilight novels, but Warner Brothers has acquired the film rights to it.
Westerfield © 2012