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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Blood, Magic, & Love: The Alchemy of Being

Proper English libraries and staid country manors, drafty French castles built to hold off hordes of invaders, and a haunted New England farmhouse, full of the usual assortment of characters... at least, if one numbers witches, vampires, and demons among the “usual” inhabitants.
As improbable as that sounds, it all comes across as a rather “ordinary” sort of world in newcomer Deborah Harkness’s fabulous (and strikingly-different) supernatural tale, A Discovery of Witches.
And what a debut this is! Artfully combining historical facts with literature, science, philosophy, myth and lore--plus thoughtfully contemplating the nature of love--Harkness shows off her storytelling chops to great effect. This is an author with some very interesting things to say, and a splendidly-unhackneyed way of going about it.
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It’s a typical day for American professor Dr. Diana Bishop, sequestered once again in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library behind a huge stack of rare books. An expert in the field of 16th-century alchemy (the philosophical and scientific study of attempting to turn base metals into gold and to find the elixir of life), Diana is laboriously making her way through the latest pile of dusty tomes which she’s requested from the library’s enviable collection. 


Her ordinary day takes a rather extraordinary turn, however, when she notices something startling about the ancient manuscripts laid out before her. One of the books wasn’t on the list she submitted... because everyone knows it's a book that has been missing for centuries. 
And that's not all; an even-greater surprise follows, when she discovers that the long-lost book is enchanted... and that she has somehow managed to unlock the magical spell which had bound the book closed for so long... without having a clue as to how she accomplished it
Diana, you see, isn’t just a professor; she’s also a witch... albeit a very reluctant (not to mention completely untrained) one.
It’s important to understand that being a witch isn’t simply a matter of learning how to practice spells on unsuspecting frogs or to levitate spoons from the cutlery drawer; in this world, one is born a witch, whether one learns to harness and use one’s innate powers or not. (Harkness makes distinctions between “humans” and “creatures”; humans have few innate powers at their disposal, whereas the three types of creatures--witches, vampires, and demons--possess an array of special abilities, whether born to them, in the case of witches and demons, or by acquiring them after undergoing a radical change, in the case of vampires.) 
Facing her own magical lineage has always been something Diana shied away from doing. A direct descendant of the very first witch to be burned at the stake in Salem--as well as being the orphaned daughter of two powerful witches who were murdered for their craft when she was only a child--she is, quite understandably, a bit gun-shy about embracing her "gift". Instead, most of her life has been spent avoiding who and what she is, trying to live as an ordinary human, in what she hoped was relative safety and anonymity. (That’s all about to change, of course.)
But back to the enchanted alchemy textbook, which is alarming even to an untrained witch such as Diana. Tentatively paging through the arcane manuscript, she notes some ominous things... missing pages, incorrectly-drawn illustrations, and that the book is actually a palimpsest (with an underlayer of writing beneath the readily-apparent one). Uneasily, she returns the book to the circulation desk, thinking perhaps she should just forget about it for the time being.
Of course, that would be too easy. Magic has a way of making its presence known, and within 24 hours, there are dozens of witches, vampires, and demons hanging out at the Bodleian, all eager to get their hands on the book... a book which, curiously, has once again gone missing. (That being the case, the horde of creatures will, unfortunately, settle for getting their hands on Diana.) 
Among those whose attention she has drawn is a reclusive, fellow Oxford scientist--none other than 1,500-year-old vampire Matthew Clairmont--who has been trying to track the elusive manuscript for centuries. Why? Because it's rumored to hold the key to everything; the book is thought to document not the origin, life force, and meaning of man, but of witches, vampires, and demons... and it may also contain the key to their future survival.
As one after another creature wheedles--then threatens and harasses--her, trying to get her to re-call the book from the stacks and explain how she managed to open it, Diana finds herself turning more frequently to Matthew for advice and protection. (Yes, he’s a scary old vampire... but he’s also an eminent member of the university, and one of the few beings who hasn’t threatened her.) And, when her lodgings are ransacked and her life threatened by a particularly nasty witch who has grown tired of waiting Diana out, it seems only natural that she agree to let Matthew spirit her away to his ancestral home in France.
There, the pair continue their research, comparing genomic sequencing results with the work of early scientists, and trying to figure how the findings apply to them. They try to formulate some sort of battle strategy, too, since it’s clear that no one will be giving up any time soon. And, Diana struggles to get a handle on her long-dormant powers... which have begun manifesting themselves at odd moments, and which she has no clue how to deal with or control.

There's one other teensy little thing to worry about: the feelings between the vampire and the witch. Inter-species relationships were expressly forbidden by supernatural law, long ago. A union between the two of them would not only draw scorn, but would put them in perhaps the greatest danger of all.
Still, the heart wants what the heart wants, so the lovers flee once more. This time, they seek out Diana’s childhood home, where her aunts raised her following her parents’ murders. They hope they'll be safe long enough that the witches can teach Diana to use her immense but untapped abilities... because their only hope of surviving the impending war--and ensuring the future welfare of all creatures--depends upon it.
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A Discovery of Witches is a substantial book, in length and scope. Harkness takes her time, gradually painting a beautiful picture, and fleshing it out with historical details, lore, passion, and romance. You might worry that the book meanders aimlessly, but it doesn’t. Instead, it leisurely explores a relationship between two equals who come from very different worlds, set against a turbulent backdrop colored by fear, racism, and tradition, and does it with elegance, style, and ease. 
The main characters, Diana and Matthew, are likable, but neither is painted as some ridiculous ideal. Matthew is a vampire, so of course he’s attractive and charming... but he’s a vampire, which also means he feeds on humans and animals (which isn’t particularly pleasant). Diana may possess untold powers as a witch, but extreme beauty isn’t among them, nor is she remotely adept at any of the powers she does have. (An impossibly-capable heroine, she isn't.) There’s a certain amount of blood (repeat: here be vampires), although not so much gore, and there’s very, very little sex. (Forget the R-rated bloodsuckers popular of late in books, TV, and the movies; this isn't like that, at all.) 
What this is, is a love story wrapped up in a supernatural mystery, with philosophical undertones and scientific overtones. If you’re looking for over-the-top or gratuitous anything, you’ll be disappointed. If you've been craving something intelligent and magical and different, though, this might just be your cup of herbal tea.
Finally, I should mention that this book seems to be the first in a series; the story doesn’t entirely resolve itself on the last page. However--and this is of major importance to anyone who dreads the thought of yet another cliffhanger--take heart that there isn’t one of those frustrating, oh-my-gosh-what-happens-in-the-next-five-minutes endings here, either. A Discovery of Witches is a self-contained story, with the promise of an equally-entertaining sequel. 

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.25 out of 5 mousies!