I wasn't feeling well over the weekend and wanted something new to read, so I took a cursory glance at a few top-level reviews and downloaded a copy of A Discovery of Witches to my Kindle account. The title had caught my interest back in 2011 when it was first released, but when I heard some of the positive blurbs compare it to Twilight and Deborah Harkness to Stephanie Meyer, I decided to pass on it.
This was a shame because if it weren't for the reference to Twilight (which I have read, to satisfy a friend who was a fan), it otherwise sounded like something I would enjoy reading. I love the concept of "magic hidden among us" and the idea of magical creatures in modern settings. This is why I enjoyed the Harry Potter books so much, and others like Kadrey's Sandman Slim novels or (and don't you dare laugh) Shirley Rousseau Murphy's Joe Grey novels, in which talking cats solve murder mysteries (I told you not to laugh, goddammit!).
I finished A Discovery of Witches last night and am still trying to process my feelings about it, and I would love to discuss this with any ODeckers or off-topic Kinja forum commenters who might have also read it. I'll get to my list of Pros and Cons in a bit, but most of all I wish I wish I WISH this book had been written before Twilight, because I inevitably found myself comparing the two as I was reading, and it wasn't pleasant. If I had been able to read it outside of that context, I think I'd know better how I feel about it, and how much I actually enjoyed it.
- Diana Bishop, for the most part, seems to be a competent scholar, if not a competent witch. She's a prodigy and an Anglophile, as she's an American witch but lives and works in England (at Oxford, more specifically). At least she's got a solid career going on and is less a "Oh my life is so screwed up and I'm just a hopeless mess" type character than other female protagonists I've read in books that had the same kind of feel to them. Her reasons for not wanting to use magic seemed pretty sound, and I enjoyed the slow introduction to this secret world of witches, daemons and vampires that her perspective provided. The fact that she is revealed to be a chimera later on is also pretty interesting.
- Matthew Clairmont is a very old vampire who seems to have kept himself busy, developing expertise in various scientific and medical fields throughout his centuries of vamp-hood instead of going to high school over and over again (I know, Matthew was older when he was re-born, blah blah blah). It's what I would do if I were a vampire.
- The idea of having three races of non-human creatures is intriguing, as is the idea that they have formed some kind of pact to keep the humans from noticing them and hunting them down. Diana's ancestress was the first witch to be tried and executed in Salem, and she believes that her parents were also murdered by humans. Diana is so afraid of the danger posed by the fear of humans that she tries to blend in as much as possible, which only using her magic at a frequency of less than once per month.
- The most interesting characters are the non-human, non-main characters. Diana's aunts, Sarah and Emily, are a lesbian couple who live in the historical Bishop family home. There's Hamish, the gay daemon who lives in Scotland and plays chess with Matthew while he's in fits of vampire temper. There are Miriam and Marcus, who we find out are Matthew's vampire "children." And of course, Ysabeau and Marthe, who are Matthew's vampire mother and doting aunt-type-person.
- I like the fact that vampires can eat things that aren't blood, even if that doesn't completely sustain them. The discussion about vampire senses and how different kinds of vampire lore sprang up is interesting, and at least they don't sparkle.
- The mystery of Ashmole 782 is compelling, and a mark of the depth of Diana's character that she had it in her possession and sent it back, resisting the temptation to keep it even before she knew it would bring hell raining down on her from all of the other creatures and factions who wanted it.
- Needs more cats and daemons and fewer vampires. I appreciate that Harkness is, to some extent, distinguishing her vampires from how they've been portrayed in popular media recently, but gods above and below I am so tired of them. I really tried to give them a fair chance, and as I said the side-character vampires are actually very interesting. Most of them, at least.
- The love story came close to making me put it down several times. I was hoping that if Diana and Matthew were going to have the vampire/witch sexy funtimes, that they'd just do it and get it over with, instead of prolonging The Big Moment of Making Sweet Love forever. But the weird thing is, they are actually having sex, just not PIV sex, and the narrative is glorifying that kind of sex above all other types, as if it counts more. Although, given the possibility that there could be some bouncing baby witch/vampire hybrid at some point in the future, that could be why. I just wish they weren't making such a distinction - I haven't heard such delicate line-drawing since I was at college hearing all of my Mormon friends justify how and why they still considered themselves to be virgins.
- I'm not down with the fact that a man (Matthew) seems to have been the key to unlocking a woman's (Diana's) power, and this is apparently straight-up what's going on here. It could be that I'm just a weirdo who doesn't understand people, but I have never grokked the idea of a "love" so powerful that you are willing to do crazy stupid reckless things to yourself and to others just to be with the object of your obsession. Because that's how this whole relationship between them comes off - it's a mutual obsession, and Diana's witchy parents can appear as ghosts and drop off mysterious letters about destinies and shit as much as they want, this is not healthy.
- As much as Diana says that she's not some damsel in distress, she sure seems to be in distress a lot, with a heaping side of damselism. This is one of the things that annoyed me so much about the Twilight books, is that the main character apparently isn't allowed to use her legs in the presence of vampires. And I get that witches need to sleep and vampires don't, but Diana is falling asleep ALL THE DAMN TIME just as the conversation starts getting interesting! It's all, "Oh, but enough about this clearly important thing that we all need to talk about, you should get some rest, poopsykins." Drink a fucking Red Bull and carry on, please!
Anyway, so that's where I'm at. Intrigued but annoyed, hence my internal conflict. I did buy and download the sequel, Shadow of Night, but I have to say that I'm a little iffy about this plan of Matthew's. I can't even say that Matthew and Diana have equal ownership of this plan, since apparently it's is Incredibly Important that Diana do exactly whatever Matthew says with only token protest. Instead of Matthew picking the time and place they would timewalk back to, maybe, I dunno, Diana should get a say about who she wants to learn witchcraft from? Like maybe one of her ancestresses could be a viable option here, what with all the ghost activity in the Bishop house?
I don't know. What did you guys think?
(Note: I don't think it's likely, but this discussion really doesn't need to be mainpaged, but it can be shared to other forums that are likely to have readers of this kind of stuff. Are there hardcore, angry-at-all-criticism Harkness fans out there? I don't want to know.)