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Author: Deborah Harkness

Title: A Discovery of Witches

Publisher: Headline

Hardback: 592 pages

ISBN: 978-0-7553-7402-1

Price: £14.99

Publication Date: 08/02/2011


Vampires . . . we don’t seem to be able to live without them nowadays [well, I say live!]. And the latest fan-bearing addition to the marketplace is academic and science historian Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches. Although, as the title suggests, the novel – which was the hot fiction property of the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair – isn’t only concerned with vampires.

There are witches, daemons, humans [although, it has to be said, no that many], mysterious and occult manuscripts, remote French castles, shadowy cabals, ghosts, an oubliette [a very nasty type of dungeon – although, there isn’t really a ‘nice’ type!] . . . and yoga! And at the novel’s heart? A forbidden romance between Oxford scholar and witch, Diana Bishop, and vampire geneticist and OAP, Matthew Clairmont [he’s almost one thousand five hundred years old – even if he doesn’t look it!]. It’s a sort of undead Romeo and Juliet story, if you will. Well, apart from the fact that only one of them has shuffled off the mortal coil!

But the meat of the plot revolves around Diana’s ‘discovery’ in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library of an alchemical manuscript – known as Ashmole 782 after its author, the celebrated English antiquary, politician, astrologer and alchemist, Elias Ashmole – that has not been seen in over one hundred and fifty years. And everyone seems to be after it – witches, daemons and vampires – and after Diana herself . . .

The comparison that I’m sure springs straight to mind is with the ‘T ’ word – Twilight, that is. And that would certainly be fair, to an extent. Discovery is, in some respects, a grown-up Twilight. But there are also a large number of other influences that have undoubtedly shaped this book – from Stoker and Anne Rice, to Buffy, Philip Pullman and paranormal romance [certainly the manner in which Matthew is first described – all brooding and muscley with axe-handle shoulders and minute waist – could almost have come straight from a Laurell K. Hamilton novel!]. However, Harkness has also managed to mould these influences into a text and literary world that is very much distinctive and unique.

Even if this was not Harkness’s debut novel, then I would say that the prose is incredibly good – the fact that it is her first fiction outing just makes it all the more impressive. That being said, I did find the first quarter of the book to have a pace that was slightly glacial. That’s not to say that it wasn’t engrossing or elegantly written, but just that I was waiting for it to burst into life. And it was only when the battle lines were drawn and the plot and action started to pick up pace that I found myself reading more quickly and being sucked in.

My one slight gripe with Discovery is, I must say, quite an idiosyncratic and personal one. I felt that the novel and its prose were almost too perfect and polished – especially in the romance sections between Diana and Matthew. If it was a living [or undead] being, then it would have been a vampire, all capped, pearly white teeth, beautiful hair, and smooth complexion. But I would have just liked it to be a bit more human, with some sort of flaw or rough edge. However, this rather weird complaint aside, I was immensely impressed by Deborah Harkness’s obvious abilities as an author and I have to say that the second half of the novel was brilliant. A Discovery of Witches is a really, really good read and I would highly recommend it.
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