Thursday, September 29, 2011

You can't run away from your family, especially when there's magic involved

All Diana Bishop really wanted was a normal life as an academic. Gaining tenure at a prestigious East Coast school and getting to go back to Oxford to study their alchemical texts was a dream come true, born of years of dedication and hard work.

Unfortunately, having been born the last female heir to the Bishop line of witches causes its own problems. And when a truly ancient vampire appears right at Mabon (the autumnal equinox festival), problems are going to arise.

This is where we meet Diana and Matthew in A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. Diana has been refusing to use her innate magical gifts, to the point that she keeps a mental list of the handful of times she resorts to it a year. When she gets caught in a moment of weakness using magic to get a book down at the library, she feels the eyes of a vampire on her.

That vampire would be Matthew. An amazingly old vampire, with a rather motley crew of family members behind him, his every action has layer upon layer of motive beneath the surface.

Unfortunately, these two magical beings find themselves drawn to each other, both out of a reluctant love, and for protection. For when the governing body of the supernatural world finds out about their relationship, they will do whatever it takes to separate them.

It also doesn't help that Diana appears to be a magical key of sorts needed to unseal a long lost codex explaining the origin of magical beings. Or that each group of beings thinks that the codex will give them the power of life and death over the other two.

As a paranormal romance, some will find it wanting. Matthew gets very overprotective – and sometimes possessive – of Diana. It makes perfect sense that a man raised centuries before the idea of woman’s liberation would act in this way, but some will not be able to see the actions for what they are. Others will be offended that Diana ends up relying on Matthew so much instead of finding her own way out of every situation. Some may even find the will-they-won't-they throughout the book maddening. I won't necessarily disagree with any of these points of view, but I don't think that they detract from the story at all. In fact, I would think that dating a person from a culture so different from one's own would by definition cause many of these problems. Can you really blame a person born so long ago for being a bit old-fashioned?

In all, Deborah Harkness has re-imagined the vampire-witch-demon triumvirate in a fascinating way. The history and settings feel meticulously researched, and if the science aspect is a little cloudy, at least she tried to rationalize some of the magic. And it does make a certain sort of sense that the intelligent, long-lived beings among us would have a fascination with the evolution of science over the centuries.

Overall, though, it was much more the 'paranormal romance' than the 'horror' section placement that a certain chain bookstore gave it. A Discovery of Witches ought to please those who prefer their vampires to be of the intelligent, but not sparkly, variety.

Highs: Matthew's 'family' back home is absolutely spellbinding to watch interact with each other.

Lows: It's a flaw of most romance books, but being in love really shouldn't give a person leave to be as self-centered as many heroines end up.

Verdict: The last chapter leaves me eagerly anticipating the next book in this series, due out next year.

Further Reading: Soulless, The Society of S

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