A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches
Deborah Harkness

I received a finished copy of this book via the publisher, Viking/Penguin.

The Premise: Diana Bishop has a degree from Oxford and tenure at Yale. She specializes in the history of science, primarily on alchemy. During a research trip to Oxford’s Bodleian library, Diana requests a manuscript from the Ashmole collection: known as Ashmole 782, and when she sets eyes on it she realizes that it’s enchanted. Diana is a witch, albeit a non-practicing one.  She’s avoided magic after her parent’s death. Yet the enchanted manuscript opens for her, igniting both her powers and a storm of supernatural creatures curious about the manuscript and the person who unlocked it. First and most formidable of the daemons, witches and vampires who show up is Matthew Clairmont, a professor of biochemistry, member of the Royal Society, and vampire.

Read an excerpt of A Discovery of Witches: @Fantasy Cafe or @Deborah Harkness’ website

My Thoughts: Before starting A Discovery of Witches, I saw that it was likened to “Twilight for adults”. I spent a lot of time mulling over this while I was reading the book. I think that comparisons, particularly to a book like Twilight may do more to turn readers off than to draw them in. At first,  I didn’t think that the comparison made sense. The narrator is a witch, the setting is academia, and nothing reminded me of Twilight, except the detailed prose. I thought: “Is Twilight the first thing that comes to mind when there’s a vampire romance?”, but as I got further into the story, I began to see where the comparison came from: Matthew is protective of Diana; he breaks into her rooms while she sleeps; he feels conflicted over his feelings; the Congregation wants to keep them apart. But is this book like Twilight? Well… no, not really. There are plenty of differences between the two books, and the concepts that feel similar feel only superficially similar. In fact, I feel like A Discovery of Witches sidesteps a lot of the problems with why people didn’t like Twilight. Diana Bishop is a more independent character than I found Bella, and overall the romance felt more mature (I could see what drew these two to each other despite their age differences), and the plot itself was more complex.

The subtitle “a novel” also threw me off as to what to expect. Was this something in the literary fiction sphere, or something that is essentially a paranormal romance? While the story has a lot of historical references, the protagonists drink the finest wine and practice yoga, it’s accessible to fans of the paranormal romance and urban fantasy genres. There are paranormal creatures, a slow moving romance that is a big part of the plot, and I didn’t feel like it took itself too seriously. There is an escapist side to the writing. And when it came to history, I think the author indulged a little, because Matthew owns a Gutenberg Bible, a bound copy of “Will’s plays”, a 1795 wine from Madiera, a 500 year old Tudor Manor house, and a castle. It tickled me to run into these things though, so don’t take that as a negative.

The one aspect of the writing in this book that could be seen as negative however, is how detailed it was. A meal could be cover several pages because each course is thoroughly recounted, down to individual tastes in the wine and Diana and Matthew’s reactions to everything. If you don’t like this thick, descriptive writing, you’ll be stopping this book early.  On the other hand, if you enjoy having a really lush picture of what’s going on, this book delivers. I found the details so intertwined with the slow courtship that I felt like I was enjoying something comforting and extra-wordy that I wouldn’t normally savor in large doses: like rich chocolate.  This writing style (all 579 pages of it), makes A Discovery of Witches the kind of book you read in installments, not cover to cover in one sitting.

Most of the first half of this hefty volume is a lengthy courtship between Matthew and Diana, with the discovery of the enchanted Ashmole manuscript as the initiator. Diana is the main narrator of this story, so most of the book is told from the first person point of view, although there are a couple of instances when the story follows Matthew and switches to third person. Once it’s clear there’s something the two protagonists, the consequences of inter-species dating, Diana’s powers, and the Ashmole manuscript come to the forefront. That’s when the story widens from the focus on Matthew and Diana to the people around them. On Diana’s side there are witches, on Matthew’s there are vampires. Witches are born, vampires are made. Then there is a third race, daemons who are not the demons you typically see in paranormal fiction. These are born from humans but possess genius and/or madness that sets them apart. Once the plot thickens, I was pleasantly surprised how much enjoyed the seamless mix of action and conspiracy against the romance. The author adds secret societies, power-hungry factions, paranormal forces, conspiracies, a house with it’s own personality (I loved this house, I want to live in this house), and lots of grumpy vampires with long lives and long grudges. This looks to be the beginning of an epic battle between good and evil, and while there’s a satisfying ending to A Discovery of Witches, it is clear that there’s more. I hadn’t realized this when I got the book, but A Discovery of Witches is part of a trilogy and sets the scene for Matthew and Diana’s continued adventures.

Overall: This is a book that I think is supposed to be shelved in fiction, but it has a lot of cross-over appeal for urban fantasy and paranormal romance fans. Don’t let the Oxford setting and protagonists with long academic credentials dissuade you, this is an accessible story with a slow moving romance that’s a guilty pleasure to read, but the romance isn’t all — the story is shaping up to be a great good versus evil tale. I’d recommend this one with reservations however — there’s a lot of description and exposition in this story which isn’t for everyone. If you aren’t bothered by the writing style, then I think it’s a good one to try.

This looks to be the first in a 3 book series.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers – DNF

The City & The City by China Miéville

The City & The City
China Mieville

This was written up for a guest blog on Dreams and Speculation (formally known as Book Love Affair), so it’s cross-posted there. I know I’ve mentioned this blog before so go forth and check it out if you haven’t already. It’s one of my favorite speculative fiction blogs.

I’ve never read China Miéville before, despite hearing how good Perdido Street Station and Un Dun Lin were. This was one of those authors I would try “one day”. When I heard Miéville won the Arthur C. Clarke award for the third time for The City & The City, I thought, “Hmm, yeah, I really should try out his books when I get the TBR under control”. This might have been in a couple of years or never at the rate I’m going, but when Dreams and Speculation contacted me for a guest review and offered The City & The City to read, it jumped to the top of my priority list.

The Premise:
When the body of a young woman is found dumped naked under a mattress, Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad is on the case. He lives in Besźel, a city that shares the same space as another city, Ul Qoma. At first the case looks like many before it, but as Tyador learns more about the young woman who was murdered, it becomes apparent that this is more than it first seems.  Conspiracies swirl around the investigation and Tyador has to cross the border into Ul Qoma to solve it.

My Thoughts: When I finished this book, closed it’s cover, and put it down, one word came out of my mouth. That word was: “Weird”.

The biggest mind bender for me was the setting.  Besźel and Ul Qoma are cities that overlap each other in the same spot.  Before I started reading, I assumed there was some sort of inter-dimensional magic involved and perhaps Besźel was on one plane and Ul Qoma was on another, but when I read the book I realized maybe that wasn’t it. People in Ul Qoma could see and hear (and smell) the people in Besźel and vice versa, so while they are separate, they are together. If you were in Besźel, you quickly unsee or unhear Ul Qoma, and if you are in Ul Qoma you unsee or unhear Besźel. This made perfect sense to the people in these two cities, who were trained from a young age to recognize the colors, clothes, and walk of their neighbors and to willfully ignore their existence. To enforce this rule, if someone were to actually interact in some way with the other country – perhaps mistake a Besź for an Ul Qoman, Breach steps in. Breach is the bogeyman which coalesces upon a person who has breached. Everyone fears it.

To me though, this was a foreign concept. While Inspector Borlú’s perception of the other country when he was in his own sounded like he was looking at it through some misty barrier, I began to wonder about the true nature of the separation between the two cities. Méiville sets the cities in our world, in what sounds like Eastern Europe. Do the rules of physics apply, or is this a fantasy? Is Breach magical or does it seem that way to everyone raised to revere it? Is it just in the minds of the people in the two cities? And how about the breaches which happen regularly, but people must expect?  If you unsee or unhear, you must see and hear first, right? There are a lot of these types of questions, and I have my opinion, but I don’t think there is a “correct” answer.

From there I wondered what genre The City & The City fell into. It was definitely detective noir, but was it also fantasy? Is it science fiction? Is it neither? It depends on how you interpret the setting, I think. Yes, Ul Qomo and Besźel are made up, which means there’s a lot of word building here I associate with speculative fiction, but I don’t know if the cities are separated by magic, or by science, or by societal rules. I had a really hard time deciding. Well, Wikipedia mentions that Miéville describes his work as “weird fiction”.

Wikipedia: “Weird tales often blend the supernatural, mythical, and even scientific”
Me: “Yup, that works. “

The setting is folded neatly into Borlú’s investigation because his murder victim has links to a third city. The one in children’s stories that exists alongside Besźel and Ul Qoma – Orciny. As you can probably guess by now, Miéville plays it cagey there too. Whether Orciny exists is intertwined in the investigation, because the murder victim may have discovered it. I enjoyed Borlú’s moments of brilliance that moved the investigation along when it looked like it was about to stagnate, but the existential dilemmas tangled in the crime solving sort of narrows down who is going to enjoy this book. I think if you’re a reader who enjoys Weird Fiction and this sort of clever setting, you’d be as happy as a clam, but despite the good writing and interesting world, I think while I read this, I wanted a twinge less headspace taken up with pondering the cities, and more pondering the murder.

I have the Random House reader’s circle edition of this book. It comes with a conversation with the author at the end of the book, reading group questions, and an excerpt of Kraken.  The conversation made me feel like I was getting some of the things the author was aiming for in the story so it was nice to read it, although it did reinforce my feeling of being teased.

Overall: A story that combines detective noir with a weird but clever genre-bending setting. I liked it – the prose is perfect and the world building (a very important thing in my enjoying a book) superb, but I think I wanted a little less cleverness, and a little more straight detective noir.  I’m giving this an actual numerical score for D&S’s archives – 7, leaning towards an 8. Can I say 7.5?

Buy: Amazon | Powells | The Book Depository

Other reviews/Link:
Fantasy Book Critic – “Beautiful prose, empty book”
Walker of Worlds asks if this book is really science fiction

Video of an author interview

Lost in Austen: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure by Emma Campbell Webster

Lost in Austen by Emma Campbell Webster
Lost in Austen
by Emma Campbell Webster
This is a book I picked up at Powell’s during my Portland trip and is one of my 6 things for the Everything Austen challenge (3 down 3 to go).

The Premise: This is a Choose Your Own adventure story where you are Elizabeth Bennet, and “your mission is to marry both prudently, and for love”. You start out with high Intelligence and Confidences points, low Fortune, and no Accomplishments or Connections and throughout the book, decide what path you want to take to increase these numbers.

My Thoughts/Overall: This isn’t meant to be read end to end, so it could be a really quick read or a really long one, depending on what choices you make and whether you want to keep trying once you fail. I kept trying to see where all the different paths could take me, which made the book longer, but after I got the general idea, I put the book down. Basically, you could end up with any of the heroes in every Jane Austen story, so there are a lot of familiar names and storylines intertwined with the Pride and Prejudice one.  Of course, Elizabeth is meant to be with Darcy, so any other marriage tends to end up in failure, and if you know P & P, you know what decisions Elizabeth should take to marry him.

As a bit of entertainment, this book works, and there are pretty line drawings throughout to illustrate the text, but it didn’t really keep my attention the way another book would because it’s really just a clever presentation of all the Jane Austen books I already know. It’s amusing to see how the author managed to interweave all the Austen books into Pride and Prejudice so you could meet Mr. Knightley or Captain Wentworth, and she throws in some curves like falling and breaking your neck or having a scandalous affair (points where you need to go back and try again), but it’s ultimately not interesting enough to keep reading for more than a few minutes at a time. It felt like it belonged in the “coffee table” book category – meant to be picked up every so often and provide brief pleasure and then put down again.
Buy: AmazonPowells

Other reviews:
Austenblog – thought it was very entertaining

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist
Rachel Cohn, David Levithan

Rachel Cohen is a new to me author but I've read David Levithan's Boy Meets Boy and The Realm of Possibility and enjoyed them. I've been hearing buzzing over this book for a while now, but it went on my "I really want to read this" list when I read the review on Dear Author.

This is one of my favorite reads of last year.

Obviously from the title, this book is about two people – Nick and Norah. Nick is a bass player for a queercore (whatever that is) band and was dumped three weeks ago by his girlfriend Tris. He's still reeling over this blow when he meets Norah at one of his band's gigs, around the same time he glimpses Tris coming towards him with her new boyfriend. Desperate to save face he turns to Norah and asks her to be his girlfriend for 5 minutes. Norah is a smart talking daughter of a music executive who just happens to know Tris, and although Nick doesn't know it, she knows what Tris has done to him. What flows from that meeting is a fantastic night in New York City as two kids from New Jersey go on what ends up being an all night date. The book is narrated in first person past tense and switches between Nick and Norah's viewpoints, so we ride the ups and downs that happen during this night as they get to know each other.

Overall: This is one of those books with a young adult label that is an instant classic to me because it's written in such a way that a teen today could read this again in 20 years and still like the book.  Even though the book is full of cursing from both characters and many music references, it doesn't exclude the reader or try too hard. Everything seems natural. It does deal with some sexual situations and of course colorful swearing which may alarm some parents but it also has straight-edge (no alcohol or drugs) protagonists, friends behaving responsibly, and refreshing writing. If you're still on the fence – go read this excerpt and you'll be able to decide pretty quickly if this is the book for you.

I wanted to read the book before the movie came out but in the end I saw the movie first. This is one of those times where I liked both the book and the movie, but the two are really different. There are some major plot differences in the two, and while the movie had more humor, the characters in the book were more like real people I could believe in. Rent the movie, buy the book! In the movie, Caroline, who seems to have a real drinking problem, is reduced to a humor device, and Tris, who was multifaceted in the book, became a stereotypical and manipulative barbie doll.

While I enjoyed the colorful side characters that orbited the main two, what I liked most were the characters of Nick and Norah. Norah was especially endearing.  Of the two, Norah is at first the tough no-nonsense one to me, responsible and looking out for her drunk friend, but I realized that she's also scared because the only other relationship she had was with Tal, a boy who did a number on her self-esteem. She's a jewish girl who is spiritual in a cool way, and Nick's response to her feelings about her faith is thoughful, not condescending or patronizing. That conversation about her beliefs is an example of the give and take between the two characters that flowed perfectly once they let it. I could believe that these were the types of conversations you had with someone you had an instant connection with – random topics that provide insight into the other and last for hours and hours. Nick seems like the perfect foil to Norah. He's the even keeled one who complements Norah's volatility.  When she freaks and runs, he doesn't understand, but he doesn't give up on her either. He's someone who turns out to be more persistent and dependable than she'd imagined. From the one night here, I could see that these two braving life together.

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Darcy’s Story by Janet Aylmer

Darcy's Story
Janet Aylmer

This is probably going to be a Jane Austen week over here because I got into a strange kick that started with picking up Darcy's Story and Pride, Prejudice and Jasmine Field for a dollar at the library store.

"When Elizabeth Bennet first met Mr. Darcy she found him proud, distant, and rude – despite the other ladies' admiration of his estate in Derbyshire and ten thousand pounds a year. But what is Mr. Darcy thinking?"

Unlike the previous book I read, this isn't a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, but rather a retelling of the same story from the point of view of Darcy.

My thoughts: Well, it keeps consistent with the plot of Pride and Prejudice, but it lacks something. Almost every scene is exactly the same as Pride and Prejudice, at least the ones with Darcy in them, so I got the feeling that I was just rereading the original story and not seeing anything new – if you just finished the original Jane Austen work, I would not recommend picking this book up right away, it will feel like deja vu. The dialogue is pretty much cut and pasted from Jane Austen's work, and when it isn't it is summarized in detail. I understand that this author wanted to keep as close to the original as possible, but she made the book so safe it was boring. She filled all the "spaces" where Austen's dialogue didn't exist with mundane details of day to day life like how they travelled from London and what stops were made. Otherwise she described emotions with telling not showing. Things did not have the same feel as Austen's writing, which was really underlined when you saw her dialogue in this setting. Aylmer also repeated the same dialogue over and over as Darcy remembered conversations. Even his conversation with his aunt when she confronts him about an engagement to Elizabeth just has her repeating the conversation she has with Elizabeth line for line! In italics too!

 I really wish this author tried to bring in more of her own imagination into the story instead of relying so much on the original. The only things new here were a couple of scenes where Darcy talks to Georgiana or his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam. There is also a brief description of him discovering that Mr Wickham was secretly trying to get his sister's inheritance and quickly stopping it. Otherwise, the book is a quick OK read, but not memorable. I also felt that Darcy was not as strong as he could have been – in this version we see a sympathetic character with faults, trying to do the right thing, but Aylmer really repeats over and over his problems with conversing with people he just met and his jealousy of Wickham, Charles Bingley and his cousin for their comparable ease at this skill. Once was ok, but several times made him sound very insecure and lacked subtlety.

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The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

I'd heard about The Eyre Affair before – something about an agent named Thursday Next and being able to hop into a book and meet the characters and possibly change the outcome of the book's story. I was sort of "meh" over this idea. I've read Inkheart by Cornelia Funke where someone has the ability to make pieces of the book they're reading appear just by reading aloud, and someone in the real world disappears into the book world as well. This wasn't done in a fun way though, it was a sinister talent. I had a hard time imagining visiting a book in the flesh to be "fun" because of it – more like a horrible trap. Anyway, I saw this book at my FOL bookstore for 25 cents, picked it up, then later that day I was stuck in a traffic jam. I was the passenger so I started reading a little bit, and I was surprised – hey, this book is kind of good. And it IS a fun to read book too. wow.. a couple of days later and this book was done.

I highly recommend this to literature fans. If you are a Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Bronte, Dickens or english history fan there are lots of little inside jokes going on here. Even if you aren't so into these things, this book is still enjoyable. A rudimentary knowledge of the basic plot of Jane Eyre helps though. The parallel world described here is surprising and refreshing – its 1985, London, and highbrow art and literature is very important to the masses and a part of everyday life. Richard III is treated like a Rocky Horror Picture show production – complete with audience participation and people who have been to over 30 showings, and little boys trade Henry Fielding cards. Gangs of students backing certain artistic movements riot against other conflicting movements. Compared to our values, everybody in this book seems a little on the nutty side.

Thursday Next is a Crimean War veteran, ex-police officer and now agent in Special Ops 27 – the literary division – they solve crimes like forgeries of famous manuscripts. Usually this is a pencil pushing type of job, but it's getting more dangerous every year as organized crime gets more and more involved with literature crimes. Thursday is after a master criminal who has stolen the original Martin Chuzzlewit manuscript. This criminal is number 3 on the most wanted list, has special powers and has killed 42 people. Peppering this story all is Thursday's odd family and coworkers - her father a rogue ChronoGuard (time travel police) agent, her aunt and uncle – math genius and genius inventor, her pet dodo (created with a cloning kit, version 1.2), Spike the cheerful vampire/werewolf hunter…the list goes on and on.

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Stepping from the Shadows by Patricia McKillip

Let me preface this by saying I'm a big fan of Patricia McKillip. I want to own ALL of her books. I own most of them except maybe a couple of the new ones since I haven't gotten around to it yet and a couple of the really old hard to find ones.

This is an early work by McKillip – a novel, not fantasy. I'm going to keep it so my collection can be complete, but sadly this was not my cup of tea. While McKillips lyrical, dreamlike prose is wonderful in a fantasy landscape it doesn't translate well in general fiction – I guess it can be seen as mystic realism but I don't think it worked well. The novel follows the growth of Francis, a young girl which an incredible imagination who moves around with her family from place to place. As she ages she sees or think she sees a mystical figure she calls the Stagman who follows her on her journey. My biggest problem with the book is it didn't feel like it went anywhere (well no where that interested me, it just seemed like random life experiences of a young girl/woman). It was also confusing – if I didn't read the cover blurb, I couldn't tell you why Francis moved around or who the other seemingly major character in the book was (not the Stagman, the girl who grew up with Francis). That's how vague things were. Too much to figure out, no reward for doing so. I LOVE McKillip, just not this one. Maybe I'm just oblivious to the message (I think something to do with her fears of men, but I couldn't care enough about that, and there was no destination in the plot, just meandering).

An aside – I love the cover artwork! Very dreamy, seventies look and nice detail.

4 out of 10 for me.

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

This book is a series of letters written to an unknown friend by Charlie – a quiet young man who lives mostly in his head. These letters span about a year from the start of his freshman year in high school, as Charlie starts to learn how to "participate" in life instead of watching. He makes friends with some seniors who take him under their wing and seem to be understanding about his innocence. Charlie is a very unusual character – quiet, observant and thinks a lot about what he sees, seemingly highly sensitive and prone to crying, and unsure about how to interact with people comfortably. He seems very intelligent and yet strange. I had a feeling like.. something is up here, something I don't know, so I had to keep reading not only to find out about his high school experiences (which were hilarious, sad, crazy, unexpected and wonderful all wrapped up in one), but also to figure him out. I really had a good time reading this book – Charlie feels like a sweet kid everyone knows and is fond of, and I just zipped through this, and I want to go back and revisit.

I think this is a good book to read if you ever felt like a wallflower yourself (probably most people at some point). It had me thinking about the things you think about when you are growing up and figuring people out – watching others and daydreaming and imagining what other people think or see (everyone does this, right?). I think one of the only problems I would say I had with this book is I'm not sure I believe so many people could be that patient and understanding about Charlie and willing to bring him into their group of friends, but it WAS a small group of people who were on the fringes anyway so perhaps I'm being too picky here. The other thing was – ok some of the things that happened made me squint in disbelief - ALL that madness happened in ONE YEAR?! I'm just dying to say something that's a spoiler so I'm just going to comment that in my post on vox and if you want to find out, go there.

9.5 outta 10

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