Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness



This book has been popping up into my field of vision for a solid two years, and the first sequel is already out and keeps showing up as well. Goodreads connections have read it, it shows up on lists of "Best Of" books, and frankly, once something has managed to make itself heard over the usual noise of cultural recommendations, I feel like I need to check it out.

The timing on this one is entirely coincidental--it was sitting on top of the "Leave One, Take One" bookshelf at the hair salon I go to, and I figured that there was literally no way it would be easier to read this book.

The backstory is kind of intriguing--the author is herself an academic with a number of non-fiction books on her C.V. What does a professor of European history and history of science write about when writing successful fiction?

Turns out--she writes Mary Sue Meets The Dreamy Vampire.

Honestly, there is obviously intellect at work, and some lovely passages about the lure of old libraries and the pleasures of intellectual pursuits. Obviously, the scenes set in Oxford are drawn from her own experience. And I am not philosophically opposed to supernatural novels--mixing witches, daemons and vampires into academia is not necessarily a deal breaker. I am willing to go with someone who handles this well.  But this main character--Diana Bishop? She positively reeks of Mary Sue-ism to the point where I had what amounts to an allergic reaction and gave it all up.

Our Heroine is a witch. Actually, a Salem witch, the descendant of the Salem Bishop witches, who are supposedly the most powerful ones in America, as well as the daughter of the Proctor line as well. This means that she is Sooper Speshully Powerful, the culmination of the two most powerful magic families in the country. But! She refuses--on principle!--to use magic! Because her parents were killed mysteriously when she was a child, so obviously (?) that tragic backstory explains why she has to do academia like a non-magical person would. Except when she does use magic, but she tries to limit it! And fixing the washing machine shouldn't count, because it might have caused water damage to the apartment below hers! (This is an actual thing she says.)

So, now she is in possession of an honestly earned Ph.D. in history from Harvard, and she's got tenure at Yale. So no privilege or snobbery there at all. Because she didn't get it from using magic! It's all her own intellectual effort! (Because Harvard and Yale are completely meritocratic, and have no Old Boy Networks, or tendency to admit and reward family connections or anything.) So trust us--even though she is Magic, she didn't use it (unless she did?)--she is just one of the top 1% of intellectuals in the US all by herself! Nothing special about her at all!

Now, she's at Oxford doing research for a keynote address on alchemical history. Because that's not magic! She insists it isn't, so it mustn't be! And she calls up a number of books each day, including one called Ashmole 782, that is odd. It's not willing to give up its call slip to the librarian until Diana touches it. She feels the tingle of a spell on the cover. She opens it, and it's all palimsest and magical writing and odd non-standardized alchemical imagery, and since she is so principled (the washing machine doesn't count, I tell you!) she decides she would be too tempted to use magic to understand it, so she sends it back to the stacks.

But somehow, her touching it breaks a magical seal, and now all the magical creatures are aware that Ashmole 782 has been found. It starts asserting a magnetic draw, and all kinds of magical creatures start showing up in the library and trying to get their hands on it, using Diana if possible.

Fortunately, the incredibly handsome and debonair 1500 year old vampire Matthew Clairmont shows up before anybody else does. Even though magical creatures hide their nature from humans, Matthew has managed to become a world renowned expert on genetics and Norwegian wolves, and a couple of other areas, without looking more than 35 and without raising any suspicions. (He is also apparently not worried about having his fame follow him and cause any suspicions in the future either, when his seminal work is still being taught and he still looks 35 decades from now.)

Matthew and Diana are both gorgeous, both Sooper Speshully Powerful, and so of course Diana is absolutely not going to fall in love with him or anything. She even calls home to tell her psychic aunt that. And then she falls asleep in her chair with the window open, and wakes up in the small hours of the morning with the taste of cloves in her mouth.

What? Did you suspect that Matthew the Sooper Speshul vampire came in through the window and watched her sleep? Is this what vampires do now? Thanks, Stephanie Meyer. Thanks a whole lot. But--he had an excuse! He thought maybe she had smuggled Ashmole 782 out of the library, against all the rules and conventions of academic research! So he had to search her apartment! (But mostly he just stood there and watched her sleep, while seeing Powerful Magic seeping out of her skin.)

Powerful magic you say? She is more powerful than she knows? Maybe you have to teach her how to accept her power and control it so it doesn't break loose and wreak havoc. (Substitute the word "sexuality" for "magic" just to make the dynamic between these two characters as creepy as it is.) We are in vintage romance novel territory here--back in the old days of the late 1970s, when the formula required that the heroine be under the age of 22 and a virgin, while the hero had to be wealthy and a good 15 years or more older, as well as sexually experienced but wounded….

Of course, he starts putting the moves on her--I mean, hanging around the library to intercept all the other magical people who want to find that book and think she may have it. Nobody seems to have tried just putting in a call slip, nobody seems to be trying to track what happened to that book after she sent it back. Everybody just seems to assume that she's got it? Like with her at all times, even when running or rowing on the river?

I lost it when the big set piece of the first part of the book is the two of them finding they have something in common, which is--yoga? Seriously? Matthew the 1500 year old vampire puts on yoga pants and puts a mat into his Lamborghini and goes to do downward dog poses?

It's worse than that. The class is for all sorts of magical people--vampires AND witches AND daemons, who we have been told have strict taboos against mingling together. But magical wonderful Matthew has managed to use yoga class (!?!?!) to get these several dozen beings to overcome their natural revulsion in order to--take a yoga class. I am so not buying this at all.

But I stuck it out for about one more chapter, after Diana flounces around at Matthew, then finds out that he built the enormous country home where the class was held--back in 1590, using the architect who had built Hampton Court for Cardinal Wolsey. Then Matthew goes to Scotland to meet with a friend of his and to brood darkly over a chess board--because he is In Love With Diana. Because of COURSE he is--who wouldn't fall in love with someone with exactly zero personality, and who has been nothing but snide and bratty to him?

It's that Sekkrit Power she has (hint: it's really sex) that she doesn't realize she has (really, it's totally sex) and that he knows he can teach her how to harness and use (sex, ya think?)

So at that point, I gave up. You know where this is going, right? They are going to both be in love with each other, but not say anything because reasons. Or they are going to be Forced by Magical Society to be apart, until they overcome the oppressive system from the Sooper Speshulness of their Love (the greatest love story of all time and history, of course.)

I did look up a plot synopsis to see if I was missing anything--and nope. There is a whole lot more Sooper Speshul Magick Powers nonsense, and then. . .time walking? Also a lot of Diana being rescued by her white knight, which--ugh.

Well, at least I know I'm not missing anything. So many other books are already lined up to fill up this particular spot!


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