"The leather bound volume was nothing remarkable. To an ordinary historian it would have looked no different from hundreds of other manuscripts in Oxford's Bodleian Library, ancient and worn, but I knew there was something odd about it from the moment I collected it"
This is the opening paragraph of A Discovery of Witches and ah this sound promising I thought. This manuscript has been asked for by Diana Bishop, a historian and, as she touches the leather 'a mild shock made me withdraw my fingers quickly, but not quickly enough, the tingling travelled up my arms...." Why? Well, apart from being a historian, Diana is a witch of impeccable lineage, the last of the Bishop witches from America. She has renounced her heritage and has created a life which depends on reason and scholarly abilities, not hunches and spells. She was in Oxford to complete a research project and, unknowingly, has summoned up a manuscript which is bound by a spell. Once the spell has been let loose Diana finds herself surrounded by witches, demons and vampires all preying on her as all, unknowingly, she has led them to this document, No 782.
She is in danger and in need of a protector who appears in the unlikely form of a Vampire, and a Vampire geneticist at that, one Matthew Clairmont, and he is a spot on Mills & Boon hero - "broad shoulders narrowed into slender hips, which flowed into lean muscular legs. His hands were strikingly long and agile, a mark of physiological delicacy that made your eyes drift back to them.....his face was striking, all distinct planes and surfaces, with high angled cheek bones.....but the most unnerving thing about him was not his physical perfection it was his feral combination of strength, agility and keen intelligence....he looked like a panther that could strike at any moment..."
Phew I thought no wonder Diana is attracted to him. BUT as I said he is a vampire and witches and vampires are forbidden to fall in love with one another or become involved in any relationship at all, and it is clear there will be tears before bedtime.
Now at this stage of the book, I was thinking this is going to be good, I am really going to enjoy this, but then came a slackening off of my interest, the pace slowed down to funereal and I started skimming pages, always a bad sign. However, I decided to persevere as I felt that I had had such a promising start that I would enjoy it, I would....
And yes I did in the end, but lots of longueurs along the way. I had recently re-read and reviewed HP and the Deathly Hallows a book of equal length to that of Deborah Harkness, and felt very strongly that the middle section could have done with some pretty strong culling. A Discovery of Witches is another example of a book that would have been improved with some editing, in my opinion of course, I hasten to add, not laying down ground rules here. The author is a historian of science and a professor of history at the University of Southern California and is obviously a pretty brainy lady, but this reader did begin to feel that she was the recipient of a lecture on DNA and alchemy that went on way too long. Great chunks of this which, quite frankly, were incredibly boring and the skipping began again. In between all of this, the love story between Diana and Matthew grows in intensity and this is the core of the book which was in danger of getting lost in all this scientific information. Now I will admit freely that vampire books are not my thing, I find them distinctly creepy, but what saved it for me was the fact that Matthew is a few hundred years old, knew Christopher Marlowe, met Shakespeare, has pithy things to say about Washington and other presidents and it is all wittily done and fascinating.
"Did you know Jefferson?" " I knew Washington better, he was a soldier - a man who let his actions speak for him. Jefferson was full of words"
An awful lot of dreadful things happen to Diana along the way, captured by wicked witches who torture her to find out what she knows about the mysterious document she unearthed in the Bodleian, thrown down an oubliette from which she is rescued, highly improbably and in the nick of time, by Matthew and is then forced to learn and practice her long rejected skill in witchcraft to withstand these attacks upon her.
The last part of the book when she and Matthew seek refuge with her family back in America picks up speed and we then fairly charge towards the finishing line as Diana and Matthew realise they have to time travel and go back in time in order to hide from the fate that awaits them, back to the reign of Elizabeth I.
"I can smell the quinces" our new life was already calling to me. "Remember don't let go, no matter what"
Home I thought. My heart tugged with longing. An unfamiliar bell tolled the hours. There was a warm sense of fire against my skin and the air filled with scents of lavender, beeswax and ripe quince. "It's time". Together we lifted our feet and stepped into the unknown'
A few years ago I read a book called The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. Lots of publicity, lots of PR and it all started off in a very similar fashion, with vampires and witches and mysterious libraries and dark corners and all exciting and gripping. Then, another dip as it went on and on, more scary moments in more libraries, all over the world this time, endless narrow escapes from dark shadows etc until I leapt forward and read the, frankly, unbelievable ending. I totally lost patience with it and was pleased to see that my daughter, to whom I had given my copy, reacted the same way so that I knew it wasn't just me.
I thought of this book when I read A Discovery of Witches as I had the sinking feeling that my pattern of reading was going to be the same, and so it proved. A good start, a slowing down, huge dip in the middle, and then we were up and off towards the denouement. A bumpy ride all through and I really had to persevere in order to finish. However, I am glad I did. Still find the whole vampire bit a bit stomach turning and a bit too much detail about the hunting and drinking of blood, but in the end, this is a love story and I am a sucker for a good romance. OK it is covered up with far too much verbiage and a few too many 'with one bound she was free' moments, but it was fascinating enough to keep me going and, on balance, I think I have to say that I enjoyed it.
The reader can either take the ending as the finish and that is it, or, which I suspect is more likely, there will be a second book in due course. The two main characters of Diana and Matthew, with their background and history, have been well drawn and presented to us so strongly that I cannot think Deborah Harkness will be able to give them up. (Have just checked and see it is the first of a trilogy)
So I look forward with interest to the second and hope it is a little easier to love than this one.
Has anybody else read this and, if so, could you let me have your thoughts on same - I know it has been mooted around the blogsphere and I have already read one post which also mentions The Historian, which just shows that some of us are on the same wave length when it comes to A Discovery of Witches. I don't like giving negative reviews of books as you know. If I don't care for a particular title I tend to keep stum, but I will admit I have very mixed feelings about this one so thoughts from any other readers would be most welcome.