Deborah Harkness: A Discovery of Witches Review
While tales of witches, vampires and demons have been haunting literature for more than a millennium, these otherworldly creatures remain trending topics in American pop culture. Today’s vampires are sexy leading men—albeit a bit moody— and the witches are a far cry from the weird sisters who incant “double, double toil and trouble” around a cauldron in Macbeth. In fact, witches (the good ones, at least) have now supplanted the fair maidens and princesses in fairy tales.
Let’s blame Anne Rice.
Her wildly popular book series The Vampire Chronicles, introduced in 1976 with Interview with the Vampire, was quite different from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, epitomized on screen by Béla Lugosi. Rice’s vampires don’t transform into bats and aren’t fazed by garlic or crosses. They’re well-manned and supernaturally beautiful. (Remember the film version featured Tom Cruise as Lestat, Brad Pitt as Louis, and Antonio Banderas as Armand—not one of them bore a toothy resemblance to Lugosi or F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.)
Lestat’s sex appeal paved the way for writers like Stephenie Meyer and her best-selling Twilight series, a wildly popular four-part vampiric romance where the star-crossed lovers are an American teen Bella Swan and a relatively young 108-year-old vampire, Edward Cullen. And wizards and witches have become heroes to the teen and ’tween set, thanks to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. In Potter’s adventures, we were introduced to an entirely new magical world, where we rooted for the orphaned boy wizard and actually felt sorry for the Muggles—humans without magical powers.
Deborah Harkness has tapped into this otherworldly vein with her debut novel A Discovery of Witches. Equally historical fiction, fantasy and romance, the work conjures a brew of a number of pop literature elements, starting with an illicit love affair between an American scholar and athlete, who happens to be a witch, and a 1,500-year-old, wine-loving, yoga-practicing vampire. Maybe it sounds comical, but it’s not presented in such a way. Instead, it’s forbidden love, breaking the laws of co-mingling among the creature races—demons, witches and vampires—who live among humans. Much of the book follows the lengths our protagonists go in order to be together. Call it “witch lit.”
We first meet our intrepid, youngish heroine Diana Bishop as she recalls a few archival manuscripts from Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The scholar is on leave from a tenured teaching post at Yale and is continuing research on the history of science, specifically the Newtonian era of the late 17th century where science begins to overtake the belief in alchemy and magic.
Diana immediately recognizes that one of the alchemical manuscripts, Ashmole 782, is bewitched. Her skin prickles at every touch of the leather-bound volume, and she is immediately both drawn and repulsed. Naturally—or unnaturally—Diana Bishop comes from a long line of powerful witches, descending from Bridget Bishop, the first woman executed for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. Diana has been denying her heritage and the use of magic, trying to pass as human her entire life. She can count on one hand the number of times she’s used her powers in a year, and those instances were specific emergencies (like casting a spell on an overflowing washing machine).
Ashmole 782 turns out to be a palimpsest—a manuscript hidden in a manuscript—believed lost until Diana unwittingly recalls it from the stacks. With manuscript in hand, she attracts unwarranted attention by vampires, witches and demons at Oxford who want to possess it and know the secrets it may hold. They’ll use force, if necessary, to extract the knowledge they need from Diana. One creature tracking her every move is fellow academician and doctor Matthew Clairmont.
Wouldn’t you know—he’s a vampire.
Clairmont has been searching for the missing manuscript for hundreds of years because he believes it could unlock the mysteries of the origins of demons, vampires and witches. These creatures are dying out, their powers weakening with every generation, so Clairmont’s vested interest is in preserving his own species.
Fans of historical fiction will be mesmerized by Harkness’s attention to detail in A Discovery of Witches. The historical references? No surprise, considering she’s a professor of Western European history at the University of Southern California. (Her previous works include nonfiction texts John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature (1999) and The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (2007).) She’s adept at injecting bits of historical truth into the fiction. For example, Ashmole 782 is a real Bodleian Library missing manuscript. Whether enchanted or not is another story.
Harkness’s gift for description isn’t relegated to historical facts. Here, she describes what Diana feels like when encountering other creatures: “When a daemon takes a look, I feel the slight, unnerving pressure of a kiss. But when a vampire stares, it feels cold, focused, and dangerous.”
At the heart of Harkness’s novel rests in an old-fashioned love story one that happens to be between a vampire and a witch, with its overtones of miscegenation. At first, Diana is wary of the vampire, and Matthew himself is unsure of his own intentions—whether he’s attracted to the manuscript’s secrets or to the witch as prey, lover or both.
In Matthew, Harkness creates a dashing antihero who makes the ladies of all species swoon. His unnatural pallor and cold touch is overshadowed by his Adonis-like beauty and impeccable, chivalric manners. He is a knight in shining armor, albeit one that needs to feed on the warm-blooded. He has controlled his urges by swigging mostly from animals, but humans and creatures are not always immune. He’s given to swings of moodiness and harbors many secrets. He’s lived through the history that Diana can only research. He actually likes doing yoga and meditation (and really, where can you find a boyfriend like that these days?). He collects wealth and wines. Yes, this vampire is a blood-red-wine snob, reflecting Harkness’s own background as an award-winning wine blogger.
In one particularly memorable scene in their courtship, Diana invites Matthew to dinner, but she must guess what to cook for a vampire. (We don’t think that’s even in any of Anthony Bourdain’s cookbooks.) Ever the researcher, she looks up the eating habits of another predator, the grey wolf, and decides on a meal of nuts, berries, greens and slightly cooked—well, rare—rabbit and salmon dishes. In return, he brings a dessert wine from his collection, an 1811 bottle of Chateau Yquem that smells of caramels and berries and explodes on the tongue.
We’re drawn to this forbidden pairing, because in our real world there are fewer and fewer barriers left to keep two people apart (in modern American society anyway). Yes, some prejudice still exists when it comes to mixed-race or same-sex couplings, but it usually isn’t a question of life or death. In the creature world, it is.
A Discovery of Witches borrows like a needy next-door neighbor. Like Rowling’s Harry Potter, Diana Bishop is an orphan, her parents murdered by other witches while trying to protect their daughter. Like the young wizard, the true extent of Diana’s power has yet to be discovered, but she has the potential, with training and guidance, to be a powerful witch.
The book also traverses territory that Dan Brown decoded in The DaVinci Code. We find that Matthew is the leader of a chivalric order that’s an offshoot of the Knights Templar. The mandate for the Knights of Lazarus of Bethany is to protect those who cannot protect themselves. After hundreds of years in dormancy, the Knights are once again resurrected in order to protect Diana Bishop, who may ultimately be able to conceive children the old-fashioned way with Matthew. (Remember, vampires are made, not birthed.)
In the last third of A Discovery of Witches, a small, renegade army of demons, vampires and witches fight against the dark forces. (Tolkien, anyone?) While the rebels prepare for a fight, Diana must learn to harness, control then strengthen her powers. It’s too dangerous for her to be trained by today’s witches—she doesn’t know who to trust. Using one of her known powers, Diana decides to “timewalk” back to an age where men were men and witches were witches: England 1590. This time-travel sets the stage for a second book in Harkness’s already mapped-out All Souls trilogy. The next installment is due in 2012.
Many will deem this pastiche of sci-fi, fantasy and romance as a hash and a rehash of recent mainstream best-sellers. To an extent, that’s true. But it’s not entertainment you’ll want to hold at bay with garlic and crucifix. Harkness’s attention to historical detail, the rich fantasy world she creates, and the imperfections and faults of both protagonists hold us thoroughly. It’s a simple little story—witch meets vampire, they fall in love. There’s a little bloodletting, like Romeo and Juliet.
Try it. You may find Harkness’s debut novel, like the Ashmole 782 manuscript bewitching.
Christine N. Ziemba is an arts and culture writer based in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Like vampires, she doesn’t get much sleep.
Witches history is quite interesting, with a number of great stories that go along with the discovery of these creatures.