March 9, 2011
I’ve been long in reading the popular debut novel by Deborah Harkness about a spellbound manuscript hidden in Oxford’s Bodleian Library and the witch and vampire involved in its protection. This isn’t a book I normally would select to read, but something in me decided to give it a chance. All that ranting about vampire and zombie mash-ups I’ve done in the past let alone the ditching of Twilight at page 50 in a failed attempt to understand why women were going haywire over Stephenie Meyer’s books hadn’t closed my mind.
Now, I must confess something. These past six months I’ve watched on DVD the seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A friend convinced me to watch the TV series that aired 1997-2003, claiming I’d be addicted come season two. Cleverly, he sent me an article by an NPR journalist stationed in Baghdad that told the story of how the slayer empowered her while she reported from Iraq. The validation worked, and I gave in, complaining about the violence in season one, only to find myself addicted in season two. He was right.
And so I had a visual and emotional reference for vampires that I thought would allow me to enjoy this new vampire fantasy novel. But Deborah Harkness is not Joss Whedon, Buffy’s talented TV creator. Speaking of Whedon, you can read about him in a new book set for May publication from the University Press of Mississippi. It’s part of their Television Conversations Series. Whedon says about his vampire show, “I wanted people to embrace it in a way that exists beyond, ‘Oh, that was a wonderful show about lawyers, let’s have dinner.’”
Reading through the 500+ pages of A Discovery of Witches, about 1,500-year-old vampire Matthew Clairmont and powerful witch Diana Bishop, whose lineage dates back to early Salem witches, I felt no literary embrace. Obviously, from the book’s current best-seller status, many do. The reason isn’t lost on me. I get the intrigue that comes with a spellbound manuscript and the perplexity of why Diana alone owns the key to unbind it. I also get the wonder of forbidden romance between cold-blooded Matthew and warm-blooded Diana that defies an angry congregation of witches, daemons and vampires. And, more than anything else, I get the spice of history that enfolds the story: Latin texts at the Bodleian Library, 14th century knights, a letter from Darwin, alchemical mappings, even the missing manuscript Ashmole 782 that, according to Harkness on her website, actually exists and remains missing.
These are the elements of a dynamic reading adventure, but the fantasy comes to life without great writing. If you’re a demanding reader like me, you’ll drown in a flood of impatience. I read 100 pages or so of A Discovery of Witches and then put it down to read another book. I came back to A Discovery of Witches, but again put it down, exasperated by the elementary descriptions and reactions, dramatic cop-outs and improbable character development, let alone a plot that moved forward by characters talking about incidents instead of being involved in them. I read another book and returned again. When I finally reached the last 100 pages of Diana and Matthew’s richly textured story, I pleaded out loud for Harkness to capture me to the oblivion of all else. It was a plea that recognized while many were enjoying this book, I couldn’t see past the aforementioned, irritating flaws.
That which challenged me most was a lack of belief in Diana as a heroine. She’s a physically fit runner and rower as well as a proud witch who, for most of her life, lived without using her powers of sorcery, so as to be valued for her academic scholarship. Yet when Matthew appears on the scene, she melts into a smitten, needy romantic who throws herself into his arms. She’s constantly fatigued and seeking Matthew’s strength, and while he’s frequently praising her courage, Harkness doesn’t show us courage, she shows us cuddling and wilfulness. In one scene – one of the best in the book – Diana withstands the interrogations and torture of another witch in an abandoned castle in France. It’s not bravery that brings her through, rather the fact (which we find out later) that her mother and father protected her with spells.
A Discovery of Witches takes place in Oxford, England, the French countryside and New York over a remarkable period of 40 days — from the time Matthew and Diana meet, through threatening days populated by vicious witches and vampires lusting after Diana’s power over Ashmole 782, to the Halloween day the couple time-walks out of the present into what will be the next book of this promised trilogy. When that sequel is published, I’ll find a reader who’s caught in the embrace and ask that reader to fill me in on what happens next to Diana and her protective vampire lover. That short conversation will be much preferred to reading what’s likely to be another large volume that will try my patience.