Written by: Deborah Harkness
I just finished the book A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. If you like the fantasy genre, then you will probably enjoy this book. It is her debut novel and the first in a planned trilogy.
During college I read a lot of literature and loved it. However, I got the impression that there was this elitism among English majors and professors that excluded popular genres like science fiction or fantasy. Oh sure, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings among a few others grace the classrooms, but the bulk of writing in this genre is completely ignored. The attitude seems to be that if the book is not award winning then it is not good. Generally, I believe that awards are given to progressive and innovative works that are too beautiful to deny. From the ones I have read, I think that the books winning the awards deserve the awards. But when I graduated college, I discovered a whole new world: reading for pleasure and pleasure alone. Suddenly, I could read whatever I wanted and I soon realized that fantasy is one of my favorite genres when it is done well.
Terry Pratchett, Charlaine Harris, Christopher Moore…and on the list goes of famous and talented writers (with cult followings) that are best sellers but usually unrecognized academically.
That being said, it seems like post the Twilight phenomenon there has been an overwhelming amount of fantasy writers emerging. And to be honest, the bulk of these books are just not good. Walking into Barnes and Noble and seeing an entire section entitled “Teen Paranormal Romance” makes me cringe a little (but not nearly as much as seeing any book published that was written by a cast member of The Jersey Shore).
When I started reading for fun, and not for school, I discovered this whole new world of writers—good writers who don’t win awards because they write popular romance, fantasy, or mystery. I also discovered that there is an intricate network in these genres and the good authors all seem to know each other. So I guess the challenge now is to sift through the bulk of trendy teen literature to find the gems.
I was reading the blog of one of my favorite fantasy authors and she mentioned Deborah’s debut novel. She was full of praise for the book claiming it was a brilliant first novel. This particular author is very well read in fantasy and I thought I’d give the book a shot.
I have no idea what to do with Deborah Harkness. She baffles me. Mostly because she is a historian. This novel is her first and (so far) only work of fiction. The rest of her work includes non fiction books and historical research, all published by major universities. For the past nearly 30 years she has been a scholar and historian. As I was reading the book I found myself shocked that a historian could write fiction so well. I cannot think of any history professor I have had that would cross over into creative writing so seamlessly.
Yet, her background is exactly why I enjoyed the book.
I hate it when authors just “make stuff up” as they go along. When I read fantasy I need it to be believable. I realize that fantasy is by definition impossible, but I believe that good fantasy makes you doubt what you know even if only for a moment. Good fantasy makes you think of what things would be like if magic really did exist. When authors just change traditional folklore and make things up as they go along, I tend to get annoyed. But when they can make their books fit into the longer tradition of folklore and fantasy…that’s when they hook me.
J. K. Rowling is the perfect example of this. She has a degree in Mythology…and it is obvious. Everything that happens in the Harry Potter series makes sense. She includes pretty much every mythological creature and legend and she stays true to traditional lore. Everything fits together so intricately and doesn’t make you stop and think “what do you mean he sparkles?”
A Discovery of Witches fits into the historical timeline neatly. This is not an alternate reality or world, it is our world with mythological creatures residing in it unbeknownst to their human counterparts. You can tell that she’s been to the places she describes which include Oxford and Syracuse. (I have another pleasure in reading about places I’ve actually been too so the Syracuse bit was exciting for me). The vampires in her story have lived through major historical events and were affected by them or effected them in ways that fit into history flawlessly. The witches in her story are from family lines dating back to the Salem witch trials. Oh and there are daemons.
Much of the book focuses on alchemy (which I have always found fascinating) and early science. This is Harkness’ historical area of expertise and it shows. Famous early scientists that dabbled in alchemy, magical possibilities…I was hooked early on.
That being said, it’s hard to say whether or not I felt like the book was good as a whole. As the first in a planned trilogy the ending was a cliff hanger of sorts. The story did not come together or tie up any loose ends. Readers will be left to wait for the next in the series without any answers or closure.
I tend to like series’ where each book can stand on its own even as it fits into the bigger picture—and this is not one of those books. However, Ms. Harkness satisfied my inner historian and I was entertained. I’m anxious to finish the series and see if she can pull it off and become a new favorite of mine.
P.S. I suppose I should add a disclaimer that if you are uncomfortable with homosexuality, vampires, magic or witchcraft this is not the book for you. These are all fairly common elements in the fantasy genre, but this is much more of an adult book than say, Harry Potter.