“A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness – entertaining fantasy

a discovery of witches“A Discovery Of Witches” has a strong sense of place and how people live in them, even though the places are disparate – academic life in Oxford, long-established aristocracy in a Château in rural France, an old Family home in Madison New York.

The creatures in the book – witches, vampires, demons, – are deftly redefined to create something new, intriguing and satisfyingly plausible.

The pace is leisurely without being plodding. Deborah Harkness understands that for the action of the book to mean anything, we have to care about the people as people. She takes the time to show us what they care about, how they live and who they love. She is writing a trilogy and she isn’t inclined to rush anything. She knows that those of us who devour these things love the details as much, if not more than, the action.

I thought the start of the book was particularly strong. I was completely engaged with the life of Diana Bishop, a Yale History Professor doing research on Alchemical  texts  in the Bodleian library and spending her spare time rowing and running to burn off her endless energy. It’s not easy to write about sitting in a library, reading and taking notes, and make it interesting, but Deborah Harkness pulls it off. This is clearly a world and a place she is at home with and the authenticity of  her descriptions provide the book with a solid base of reality which all good fantasy needs.

The book is salted with historical references and literary quotations that feel right and which demonstrate the insatiable curiosity that drives Diana Bishop’s passion for history.

Deborah Harkness has a good ear for dialogue and a good understanding of the differences between how the British and the Americans use English. Jennifer Ikeda rises to the challenge of delivering the wide range of male and female voices and accents (with the exception of Glaswegian which came out too Edinburgh for me) and carried me along effortlessly in the story.

The thing I am most ambivalent about, is Diana Bishop’s relationship with Matthew Clairmont. At points it seems like the (almost too) perfect love affair. At other times Diana seems like a cult member, traumatized into being someone different from her natural self and unquestioningly putting Matthew’s interests ahead of her own. Of course, this could be the definition of true love.

At the start of the book, Diana is a strong, independent, successful woman. In the course of her relationship with Matthew, she abandons that independence and although she grows in power, she seems less confident and less able to cope.

Part of what makes “A Discovery of Witches” worth reading is that I’m certain that the ambivalence I’m feeling is intentionally provoked by Deborah Harkness. Diana is a complex character who has been through multiple traumas and who is very far away from normal by anyone’s standards. The Diana we meet in Oxford at the start of the book is not the Diana we meet in Madison at the end. One way to read the book is that the first Diana was an artificial construct, built by a woman hiding from her own true nature and refusing to engage with the world around her and that the book describes her journey to discover herself as a witch. Another reading is that the Diana we meet in Oxford had already been crippled by earlier events that keep her solitary and make her subject to anxiety attacks and dependent on strenuous exercise to stay calm. Events in France and in Madison further traumatise Diana and the woman she is at the end of the book is scarred and not fully whole. It’s also possible to see the story as a romance where the real meaning of Diana’s life IS her relationship with Matthew or to see Matthew as a predator who cannot stop himself from consuming Diana’s life by taking control of her and changing who she is.

In my view, this all makes “A Discovery of Witches” an entertaining read.

There are a couple of things in the book that don’t work for me. The sensual scenes are too Romance Writers of America for my taste. They lack the vivid reality the rest of the book has. I also the bringing together of creatures in Madison was a little too comfortable to be completely credible.

One thing to be aware of before you buy “A Discovery of Witches”: it is not really a free-standing novel. It is book one of a trilogy. If you’re not up for reading all three then reading book one will not do much for you.

If you’d like to hear an extract of “A Discovery Of Witches”, click on the SoundCloud link below:

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