A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES
By Deborah Harkness
Guest Review by Nancy A. Hansen
I’m a busy writer and editor so I don’t get to read very often these days. For a large book like this one to hold my attention long enough to get to the end, it has to be well written and engaging. Happily, A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES is all that and more. It’s an absolutely enjoyable and finely detailed novel, and yet it only slows down long enough to reflect on what has occurred and set the stage for another unexpected turn of events.
The premise behind the story is an interesting twist on the vampire mania that has been sweeping the novel and movie worlds. Here we are told, there are four types of beings on earth, only one of which is mundane humanity. The vampires, daemons, and witches that live amongst us are all classified as ‘creatures’ in that they have preternatural abilities that at times get them into very deep trouble. There is a good blend of what might be considered canon for both witches and vampires along with some very intriguing new insights into their background and behavior. Daemons I didn’t feel were explained as fully, other than being incredibly quirky and highly intelligent. Witches were clearly detailed in their ability to cast spells and do other magical working; vampires have the legendary supernormal strength and agility as well as a consuming need to feed on blood. Beyond that, there was a considerable amount of innovative new traits added. Behind all of it though is a taboo against mingling between types, and this sets the tension for the story, in which both main characters—a long lived male vampire named Matthew Clairmont, and Diana Bishop, a highly educated female witch in denial of her considerable powers—have inexplicably fallen in love.
Yet this is far more than a gothic romance story. There is a sense of real and imminent danger from a vigilante controlling cartel of witches, daemons and vampires bent on keeping the bloodlines pure and unmixed. Also complicating matters are serious issues of personal tragedy in the backgrounds of these two diverse creatures that fate has brought together. The binding bit is Diana’s latent ability to call forth from an Oxford library archive a long lost and legendary alchemical tome named ‘Ashmole 782’. This is a manuscript that many of her fellow creatures covet for the knowledge of their origin it is believed to contain. That moment she held the book in her hands puts her life in grave danger and sends both her, Matthew, and a close knit group of relatives and trusted friends on a perilous course of discovery and ultimate rebellion.
This is a finely tooled tale of passion, danger, intrigue, and dark doings that skillfully weaves the trials of academic and family life in with the paranormal abilities of beings that have existed mostly incognito amongst the human race for millennia. The author’s background knowledge of history and literature allowed for a plausible rendering of past world events as well as great works of science and literature into the tale, giving it a richness and depth most fantasy books can’t emulate. I was especially impressed with her ability to smoothly transition from first to third person point-of-view, for while most of the book is told through Diana Bishop’s perspective, there are events that happen without her character involved that don’t suffer from an overbearing narrator explaining how she learned of this. That is not an easy shift to make even for an experienced fiction writer, yet it was seamless enough that it never felt jarring.
Overall, this is a very well done first novel from a new fiction writer. I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for something that effortlessly combines mature love and occult material fashioned around a heaping helping of eerie suspense. Since this is the first book of a trilogy and ends on sort of a cliffhanger note, I very much look forward to reading the sequel when it becomes available.
Longtime writer and avid reader, Nancy A. Hansen is the author of the New Pulp fantasy novel FORTUNE’S PAWN as well as the anthology TALES OF THE VAGABOND BARDS. She is a staff writer and assistant editor for Pro Se Press, has her own imprint HANSEN’S WAY, and many of her short stories have appeared in Pro Se’s monthly magazines and digests. She also pens a biweekly column called SO… WHY PULP? for http://www.newpulpfiction.com/. Nancy currently resides in beautiful, rural northeastern Connecticut.