A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

8667848The further I got into Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, the more I thought, “This is what Twilight could have been with a better heroine.” If I’m really being honest, I’ll add, “And if it had a better writer.” A Discovery of Witches is a meandering contemporary fantasy that achieves the amazing goal of being original in a very crowded genre. It’s a highly entertaining read, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what Harkness comes up with in the future.

Instead of a gritty urban setting, A Discovery of Witches opens in Duke Humphrey’s library at Oxford University. Diana Bishop is a scholar of the history of science, particularly alchemy. Working in academic myself, I felt right at home among the stacks in this fictional Oxford. A bewitched document touches off the action and almost before you can get your feet and figure out what’s going on, Diana is being chased all over Oxford, the French countryside, and upstate New York. Matthew Clairmont, a vampire, adds more than a dash of dark mystery to liven things up. Diana and Matthew are a great pair. Matthew is protective and intelligent. Diana is stubborn and independent. In spite of their obvious attraction to each other, each refuses to be trampled over by the other.

Diana and Matthew’s relationship alone could have fueled a novel. But on top of this, Diana finds herself an unwitting guardian to the document she discovered. Other members of the supernatural community are willing to kill and torture to get their hands on it. While the novel wanders from setting to setting and mini-drama to mini-drama, this chase adds tension to the whole–excuse me but I have to say it–witch’s brew. I have to admire Harkness for keeping that many balls up in the air while still writing a coherent, balanced narrative.

The mysterious document that triggers the action, at times, seems like a MacGuffin. There’s a lot of speculation about what’s in it. After a few chapters, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that Matthew and Diana’s relationship challenges the status quo in the supernatural community. It threatens the secret the supernaturals have been keeping for centuries. In Oxford, various representatives of tradition start to warn Diana away from the document and Matthew. People break into her apartment, follow her, launch little attacks to scare her away. Slowly, Harkness turns up the heat on her heroine. When Oxford becomes too dangerous, Matthew takes her to his ancestral home in France. Then things get really ugly when Diana is kidnapped and tortured.

Near the end of the book, Diana and Matthew flee to Diana’s aunts’ home in New York to regroup. In the last quarter of the book, I got the clear sense that Harkness was building up to a second book in the series. But she gives A Discovery of Witches a satisfying ending that makes up for all of this.

This book is so skillfully done, I’m surprised that it’s the author’s first published work. She’s subtle and the prose is wonderfully detailed without being stodgy or getting bogged down. There’s enough action to satisfy any reader, and more than enough emotional depth to elevate this book from the rest of the crowd. I’m really, really looking forward to the sequel to this compulsively readable book.

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