Deborah Harkness: A Discovery of Witches

In Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, which seems more researched than written, vampire fiction is reduced to the, pardon the pun, palest ghost of what made it unique and interesting. As cliché is piled upon cliché and derivative plot point is added upon derivative plot point, the five-hundred-and-eighty-page tome manages to be the literary equivalent of an all you can eat buffet at Denny’s, with the same sense of predictable blandness in vast quantities. For those who actually enjoy having their vampire fiction delivered in shovelfuls of unsurprising and soporifically dull prose, be of good cheer: this novel discreetly declares itself, in an almost invisible pale blue typeface upon a blue background printed at the very bottom of the inside flap of the book jacket, to be “Book One in the All Souls Trilogy.

The protagonist of A Discovery of Witches is Diana Bishop, a female scholar and witch who, while conducting research at Oxford University, discovers her powers as a witch when she becomes caught up in the secrets surrounding a mysterious seventeenth-century alchemical text and the vampire who has been seeking it for over a hundred years.

While this synopsis may seem to promise a smart and sexy supernatural mystery, a sort of Gaudy Night with witches and vampires, the narrative is more a mash-up between The Historian and The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, but with an even more notable lack of action and suspense.

For nearly the first twenty pages, the plot plods along as Diana Bishop describes herself, her family history, why she chose to be a historian, and why she loves rowing and running. Diana also explains that she is a descendant of one of the Salem witches, that witchcraft really exists, but that she, herself, never uses witchcraft and has completely rejected her heritage because she is a scholar. One of the things which makes these first few chapters so excruciatingly slow is that all this exposition is delivered in a tone which comes across as more pedantic lecture than literary prose. The following excerpt describing Diana’s initial reaction to her first brush with the mysterious manuscript conveys the confused muddle the author creates as she mixes tedious detail in with an attempt at the uncanny:

Even at a safe distance, this manuscript was challenging me—threatening the walls I’d erected to separate my career as a scholar from my birthright as the last of the Bishop witches. Here, with my hard-earned doctorate, tenure, and promotions in hand and my career beginning to blossom, I’d renounced my family’s heritage and created a life that depended on reason and scholarly abilities, not inexplicable hunches and spells. I was in Oxford to complete a research project. Upon its conclusion, my findings would be published, substantiated with extensive analysis and footnotes, and presented to human colleagues, leaving no room for mysteries and no place in my work for what could be known only through a witch’s sixth sense (p. 3).

For some unidentifiable reason, passages such as that one made me feel a nostalgic fondness for The Castle of Otranto.

To make things even less interesting, hardly a single cliché seems to go unused, a fact which becomes even more obvious when Diana runs into Matthew Clairmont, the romantic interest. For a few pages I amused myself by seeing how many clichéd phrases the author used as she described the unearthly beauty of the vampire’s bone structure, the perfect sardonically-lifted eyebrow, the hypnotic gaze, the slight unidentifiable accent with the unusually-colored eyes, and the panther-like grace. There is even the traditional first meeting in which in her attempt to run away from the vampire the heroine manages to run straight into his arms.

As for the romantic lead, what is intended as broody and mysterious manages to come across as pedantic and kind of creepy. Matthew Clairmont, described on the inside front flap of the book jacket as a “dashing geneticist vampire” has numerous degrees from various European universities both medieval and modern. He drives a Jag, is an expert yoga practitioner, and smells like cinnamon and cloves (by the third or fourth reiteration of this point I began to think of him as a vampiric pumpkin pie). Also, he’s a connoisseur of … wine. At first I thought that this might provide an opportunity to play with the classic vampire tropes, but no, it merely provides an opportunity for Matthew to deliver more pedantic lectures on wine.

Beyond all this confused and clichéd description, however, there is an aspect of the story which, while not really original, was stated more explicitly than most vampire fiction is willing to delve into. Diana is a scholar of the history of science, and Matthew has numerous degrees in various sciences, including neuroscience and psychology. Despite her supposed academic background, Diana has basically two emotions, angry and panicked. Which is fine by Matthew, who explains that Diana’s panic and fear is, for him, a sexual turn-on. There isn’t really a pretense of making this pseudo-scientific, it’s basically explained as a vampire thing, and Diana complacently accepts this as okay, which is more than I would do if a male told me that my fear was one of the main things which attracted him to me.

Which leads to one of the more annoying aspects of the book: Diana claims she is an independent modern woman who can take care of herself, but at the first sign of trouble (which comes down to someone says something mean to her), she begs Matthew to come protect her. Shades of Twilight for grown women—you really only need a nice vampire to protect you to have a fulfilling life.

While Amazon categorizes this book as horror and mystery, it is neither scary nor suspenseful. It also fails to possess any of the fast-paced action and lively humor which is such an appealing feature of the best paranormal romances. All in all, it struck me as a book which had been researched rather than written, that is, a book intended to include all of the ingredients of what the author sees as a typical vampire novel, while leaving out all of those complicated aspects such as psychological depth or a female protagonist who can save herself.

(Viking Penguin, 2011)

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