Diana is a witch and professor at Oxford University in England who is reluctant to use her witchy power and doesn’t think she has very much of it anyway, so no dig deal. During some research on alchemy, she calls up a book that has been “missing” for centuries from the library archives. Missing and desired by all three races of Creatures. That’s when her safe, boring world shreds from the edges in.
Matthew is a slightly older vampire (like nearly 1500 years older) and is the first Creature to contact Diana. Initially he wants the book, but discovers that Diana is much more interesting. She soon finds him equally compelling. A torrid, although unconsummated (at least in the first book), love affair snares them both. This is not looked on with favour by the world of Creatures who think that the races should remain separated.
The duo flees for survival across continents, pursued by evil witches and insane vampires, and helped by good witches, daemons (sanity sometimes questionable), and mostly sane vampires, who are sympathetic.
The author takes at swipe at Jim Crow in the American South, gives Romeo and Juliet a more than passing allusion, and has interesting passages where the genetics of mitochondrial DNA is explained in a straightforward manner. Trust me, it’s vital to the story and a wonderful addition for a science nerd such as myself.
By the end of the first book Diana has discovered that she is a witch of inordinate power (of course) who the evil witches believe holds the secret to improving their own abilities. They are willing to kill, maim, threaten, and torture in order to obtain whatever it is she has. A cliff hanger ensues.
The book has a unique concept--at least I haven’t read anything quite like it before in the magic/fantasy genre. Ms. Harkness was also able to present a complicated format and still stay focused. Because there is so much going on, it would have been easy to diverge off on paths that would have weakened the story. But she restrained herself to what was important. The book is long enough without back stories on every character.
As an adult I enjoyed reading a fantasy book written for adults. Don’t get me wrong--particular YA books are among my favourites, but it is nice to read something where the adult characters are primary instead of secondary. While the majority of fantasy books focus on the young adult market, Ms. Harkness realized that fantasy, and the escape and adventure it brings, is also desired by adults. Or by adults whose minds linger in a world of the fantastic and magical. I could be projecting a “serious” façade and reading War and Peace, but, honestly, would you? I know! Who would? Give me escapism any day.
Characterization is one of the most difficult things to write convincingly and here is where the book breaks down. I never did get a firm grasp on the characters, although they were written in detail. In some cases, the characters just weren’t rounded out or there weren’t enough revealed quirks to bring them to life. In other cases the characters were so unfixed or their emotions so whip crack changeable, that I felt they were cutouts put on the stage to advance the story. Diana is supposed to be incredibly brave and independent and yet she is too often weak and needy. As the heroine and primary character, I felt she needed to be just a bit more of one or the other, preferably the former.
This book was sold in the magic/fantasy genre but it’s pretty heavy on the romance. I’m not a big fan of Romance, so I found the rapidity with which Diana and Matthew fall in love, and their avowal of that love, to be trying. Sure, people do fall in love at first sight, although that kind of love usually is pheromone-based and tends to burn out before long. We are all heir to such emotions, but because these adults are both very smart, after the first initial hormone-based rush, I wanted them to approach love from a more mature direction despite the great physical attraction. I wanted them to realize that their relationship could last because of shared interests and a great sense of humor (vampires are notorious for not having one it seems). But no, these characters are willing to die, or kill, for each other after less than a month. I was left with the feeling that their professed eternal love was only physical.
That may have been helped along by Matthew being undead gorgeous and Diana being beautiful (I think; she is never described in exacting physical detail). I’m getting a little bored with vampires being supernaturally good looking. If a vampire was born in the triple digits, when there was no dental hygiene, and lived a brutal life, like all lives were at that time, then how did he become GQ material during the transformation? I’d love to read about an average-looking or even ugly, short, nerd vampire. Now if somebody loved him, then I’d believe it was eternal.
And what is Matthew going to do when Diana prunes out on him? Right now witches are not immortal, but I guess that could change in the ensuing books.
On the whole, I enjoyed the book and will purchase the sequel(s) when available. If you like Romance, you’ll probably find my objections to be specious. Whether you like Romance or not, the book is a good romp through magical yet unfamiliar territory. I give it 3½ to 4 stars, depending on my hormonal and illogical human emotions on the day you ask me.
Review by Sheryl Tongue
Order your copy of A Discovery of Witches from Amazon UK