A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches: A Novel

So yesterday I was obnoxiously boasting I knew someone who would be famous today. I hadn't decided if I should do the big reveal or not. But what the hell. The author is Deborah Harkness, author of A Discovery of Witches, which is ranked pretty high on the Occult, Fantasy and Vampire books on Amazon. (Along with an indie author, J.R. Rain.) Feel free to snicker at me for getting all excited about this, but Deb Harkness was my history professor, a delightful teacher and a wonderful person, so I'm pretty thrilled at how well her book is doing.

Also, I downloaded my copy this morning and I've been racing through the book. It's awesome. It's not surprising I would think so, is it? I don't mean because I know the author, but because she wrote a book that is exactly the kind of vampire fantasy to appeal to someone, like me, in academia, and a historian in particular. The heroine is a historian, and the tall, dark and dangerous vampire hero also happens to be scientist with an interest in evolution. It doesn't get better than that. No, seriously. It makes me realize that the one thing missing from all other vampire stories I have ever read is that the vampire hero lacked advanced degrees in biochemistry and the heroine didn't spend enough time in the Bodleian.

Admit it, have you never read a vampire story and wondered, "Dude, how come if you've been alive for three centuries, you're still such an ignorant dumbass?"

Not that I doubt someone could spend three centuries being a dumbass. I really don't. If you can waste three decades, you can waste three centuries. I can't recall the entire 26th year of my life. I'm pretty sure I wasted it doing something dumb (probably writing a novel) and it's not hard to imagine that if I were immortal, it would be easy to just let whole centuries go by where you do nothing but watch all five seasons of Babylon 5 in reverse chronological order. I'm just saying, it could happen.

This book also made me want to take up my study of alchemy again. I studied Kabbalah way before it was cool. Learned Hebrew For Magicians and everything. I filled dozens of little black notebooks with my notes in English and Hebrew on the Sefer Yetzirah, the Zohar, the Corpus Hermeticum, the Emerald Tablet, the secret studies of Newton.... That's one reason I refused to buy the American edition of the first book of Harry Potter, it so offended me that the publishers changed the name from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. The Philosopher's Stone has a rich historical meaning dating back millennia. The idea that publishers assume American kids are too stupid to deserve the real name grated on me. Still does.

A Discovery of Witches has been called the Twilight for smart people. At the most superficial level, this might seem to be playing to urban intellectuals instead of small town culture. For instance, the vampires do yoga instead of playing baseball. It goes deeper than that, though. 

I think one of the fascinating things about vampires is that they can stand in for a number of different thing (often at the same time). In traditional horror, they stand in for those predatory members of our own species who destroy others. In the whole paranormal romance genre, they stand in for predation of another kind--sexual predation, which the victims both fear and desire. 

In Harkness' book, the vampires are overwhelmingly scientists, and science itself--or knowledge--is something to be feared yet desired. Many of the creatures in the story, not just the heroine, are driven by their desire to know, to discover their origins, to find out where magic comes from and what it is. Diana, the heroine studies early modern European history, specifically the transition from alchemy to chemistry, from magic to science. The rich irony of this, of course, is that in this world, magic is real, and as a witch, she knows that. She's made a personal pledge to try to avoid magic in her own life, so it's as if by discovering how society as a whole purged magic and embraced science, she can do the same.


Tere Kirkland said…
Love witch books! So I'll have to check this out. And as a fellow academic, I think it sounds much more satisfying than your average paranormal fiction.

Congrats to Deborah!
Scott said…
Okay, freaky moment here. I was on Amazon yesterday, saw the book, and pre-ordered. I'll download on my Kindle tonight!!
Tara Maya said…
Oh, I forgot to add, if you go to her website, you can try to figure out if you're a "daemon" "vampire" "witch" or "human." At first I thought I might be a daemon, but after reading the book, I've realized I'm probably a vampire. ;)