Under normal circumstances, you couldn’t pay me to read a contemporary vampire novel. (Well, you could, I suppose: write for rates.) I’m not quite certain how I stumbled across Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches (New York: Viking, 2011); maybe it called to me from across the room.
Diana Bishop would know the feeling. While doing research on the ancient art of alchemy in the Bodleian Library, one of the manuscripts she requests seems to be trying to get her attention. Being a witch, and the last of a long line of witches at that, she recognized that there had been an enchantment attached to the document; being very much uncomfortable with being a witch in the first place, she returned it to the stacks after a cursory examination, and tried to forget about it. She had no idea that Oxford fellow Matthew Clairmont, a geneticist, also had an interest in the manuscript, although she did immediately read him as a vampire.
From this point, you can predict exactly one plot complication: the romance between Diana and Matthew. (O Twilight, where is thy sting?) In terms of being totally star-crossed, these lovers are right up there with those Veronese teenagers of old. (Vampires and witches are mortal enemies, after all, and they don’t get along that well with daemons either.) What makes Discovery work for me is the fact that with both of them trying to figure out the secrets of that old manuscript, there’s an enormous amount of historical background. (Dr Harkness, as it happens, is professor of history at USC, and knows this stuff cold.) There are a few exasperating moments, of course, mostly having to do with Clairmont’s utter gorgeousness: as is de rigueur in contemporary vampire tales, he’s a walking, talking Rolls-Royce Phantom, because it would never, ever do for our heroine to fall for some workaday Vlad the Impala. But this is forgivable: even the minor characters are carefully sketched out, and if some loose ends aren’t quite tied up at the end, well, there are two more novels to follow.
The author, sensing film potential here, is polling readers for possible leads. (For what it’s worth, I voted for Claire Danes and Alexander Skarsgård. Make of that what you will.) Would I see a film of A Discovery of Witches? Almost certainly, though I shudder when I contemplate what would have to be left out to make it fit into 130 minutes or so. Meanwhile, I’m keeping an eye out for Shadow of Night, the second volume, which is due next year.
(Before you ask: I borrowed the review copy from the library last weekend. I’ll buy my own soon enough.)