by Catie Disabato
People are insatiably hungry for new vampire stories for the same reason they like covers of songs they love: it’s pleasurable to hear something that you had an emotional reaction to, redone in an attempt to make it feel new. The first time you read a book you love is an amazing feeling of escalating excitement. The words sing on the page. The second read is less poignant, and every additional repeat offers diminishing returns. Rehashing of old stories, either by embracing the tropes or playing with them, creates the possibility that the reader will be able to have the same emotional reaction that they had to the first story. Reading vampire fiction in a culture saturated with vampires is chasing the dragon.
The cover artist – the most appropriate way to describe Deborah Harkness in this context – suffers because their readers will fall into two categories: people who love vampire fiction and want the book to live up to their expectations, and people who are reading the book in spite of the vampires. Every reader of A Discovery of Witches brings their biases and baggage to the text. Harkness makes a valiant effort in A Discovery of Witches to remake stories about vampires, witches, and other creators to make them feel fresh. Unfortunately, she fails just as often as she succeeds.
Harkness’s protagonist, Diana Bishop, is a witch and a historian, with a focus in the history of alchemy, working at Oxford College. Annoyingly, Diana doesn’t want to be a witch, a motif so tired it threatens to spoil the character entirely. Harkness rescues her protagonist through a slyly understated moment; Diana first breaks her no-using-magic rule not to fight evil or protect the innocent, but to pull an out of reach book from a high shelf. (Who wouldn’t just accio everything if they could?) A vampire named Matthew Clairmont witness Diana’s moment of telekinesis and thus begins the greatest love story Stephanie Meyer ever told.
Like most contemporary “de-fanged” vampires, Matthew Clairmont is a Mr. Darcy, withholding only because he’s hiding intense feelings, but the real problem with his character comes once he and Bishop acknowledge their love feelings for each other. He becomes Edward Cullen. Harkness might be, like so many of us, a frustrated reader of the Twilight series, attempting to fix Bella and Edward’s problems by recasting the lovers as a pair of adult academics. Aging up her characters forces maturity on their lives, but not always on their relationship. Perhaps without even meaning to, Harkness gives Matthew too many of Edward’s stupidest traits, including possessiveness and bossiness, under the pretense of keeping her safe. Matthew also passionately professes that he will end his life when Diana dies (eventually, of old age, he’ll protect her until then). This is the character’s stupidest moment. Matthew is a 1500-year-old geneticist; it feels uncharacteristic for him to shrink his lifespan to match Diana’s.
The other ridiculous plot point that Harkness steals from Meyer is that Matthew and Diana are not immediately allowed to consummate their relationship. Meyer almost gets away with her sex embargo because Bella and Edward act like teenagers, but Diana is an academic in her mid-thirties and Matthew acts like an adult. They would not wait to have sex.
While Matthew and Diana flirt and refuse to fuck, they also deal with an escalating supernatural mystery adventure. Harkness brings some truly innovative elements to this part of the narrative. The mystery begins with an ancient text filled with magic – nothing new there – but Diana finds it because she calls it up from the Oxford library stacks during her usual research. The novel’s academic trappings feel genuinely fresh. In the same vein, Matthew’s work as a geneticist, researching the evolutionary history of vampires, witches, and the third creature Harkness introduces, daemons, adds an interesting twist to the escalading conflict.
Diana occasionally finds herself in dangerous situations that truly feel threatening. Harkness knows the reader knows she won’t kill her protagonist, so she chooses to play with the possibility of inflicting lasting physical and emotional harm on Diana, which creates real, and not forced, stakes. Unfortunately, Harkness also brings in several very exhausted tropes without reworking them sufficiently; this problem chafes more as the mystery deepens and tangles.
Like every other fantasy novel published in the last ten years, A Discovery of Witches is the first in a trilogy. Harkness’s greatest achievement with this novel is her cliffhanger, which probably makes even the most skeptical readers think, “Well, fuck, now I have to read the next one.”