Thursday, March 03, 2011

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

First, a wonderful idea from Shelf Awareness, my favorite librarians/booksellers blog: Author Nicola Morgan joined the discussion with a proposal for Our World
Book Night
"One day between now and next Saturday (March 5th), let's each of us buy
a book, preferably from an actual bookshop, or direct from a publisher.
Any book. Write inside it: 'Given in the spirit of World Book Night,
March 5th 2011 and bought from [insert name of shop]--please enjoy and
tell people about it.' And give it to someone. Anyone. A friend or
stranger, a library or school or doctor's surgery or anything. Then go
home, and enjoy whatever you're reading yourself."

She summed up the advantages of Our World Book Night succinctly: "It's
very simple and everyone wins: the bookshop, the recipient, the author,
the publisher, the agent, even you, the giver, because you'll enjoy the
frisson of pleasure that comes from giving. There are no losers. That's
why I like it. And I'll be buying my book from the Edinburgh Bookshop."

In the Guardian,
Stuart Evers agreed and even upped the ante, recommending a Local
Bookshop Year: "Opinion over the giving away of thousands of books on
World Book Night seems to be divided--but whatever side you fall on
Morgan's proposition is too good to resist.... Bookshops get the
much-needed sales, and we as readers get to choose something that we
have sponsored rather than the publishers. It is the ideal time for
those who love popping into a good book shop to get back into the buying

Some authors have "raised doubts about the mass giveaway, arguing that
it could impact negatively on independent booksellers struggling to
survive in a particularly tough retail climate, while failing to reward
authors properly for their work," the Guardian noted.

Novelist Susan Hill also backed Morgan's plan, saying, "One of my
publishers has had to spend £40,000 on printing books to give away
which is £40,000 he cannot now use to publish and promote new
authors. This is a much better idea and I'm up for it."

On her blog
yesterday, Morgan clarified her position by expressing full support for
World Book Day because of its focus on children and literacy, and
contending that she is not necessarily anti-World Book Night: "I think
WBN is a great idea. I think the idea of any of us giving our own
property away when we choose to is a great idea. I think that anything
that encourages and inspires reading is a great idea. I think some great
ideas have significant costs. I think sometimes those significant costs
can be avoided. I think some great ideas are more complicated than they
need to be, but hey, I don't have to deal with the complications."

I totally agree that anything that inspires people to read and relish books is a great idea. I plan on trying to do this next year in March on the 5th, and seeing what happens. Though I do have to say that I am constantly giving books away to relatives, friends, and neighbors throughout the year. Just ask anyone who knows me and they'll tell you that I am quite generous with my finds, especially if I am familiar with what kind/genre of books a person likes.

Also, this is a book I must find a copy of, because it amazes me that a man would write it: Dan Abrams, author of Man Down: Proof Beyond a
Reasonable Doubt That Women Are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies,
World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fund Managers, and Just About
Everything Else (Abrams, $17.95, 9780810998292).

Now, on to A Discovery of Witches!
For some odd reason, this book isn't classified as genre fiction, when it is evidently clear, after the first few pages, that it's a paranormal romance novel. For some reason, the publishers, Viking, seem to think that as long as there are enough historical references and research in the book, that somehow removes it from the genre fiction category straight into regular fiction or even, heaven forfend, literary fiction. But their efforts are in vain, because the protagonist, Diana Bishop, falls in love with a thousand year old French vampire (can anyone hear the editors whispering that there need to be more "Twilight"-style romance novels on the shelves, because Stephanie Meyers made all that money on her poorly-written rip off of a Ray Bradbury novella?)named Matthew Clairmont, head of a Knights Templar order, wine connoisseur and of course, handsome and controlling in that cold way that seems to somehow make women swoon with desire (not this woman, but that's another story). Diana Bishop is the last of a long line of witches, and at the outset, she refuses her heritage, preferring to work in the sciences and research history instead, so that she can explain the existence of the inexplicable 'magic' that killed her parents. In the course of her research at the Bodelian Library in England, she manages to summon an ancient text known as Ashmole 782, a bespelled alchemical text that has been lost or centuries to witches, vampires and the peasantry of the supernatural world, daemons. Feeling its spells and sorcery as a palimpsest on its pages, Bishop freaks out enough to return the book back to the stacks, not knowing that in finding and opening the book, she's made herself a target for those factions who have been seeking it for their own uses (the vampires fear it has spells to rid the world of them, the witches believe it is theirs originally and has spells of immortality and the daemons believe it contains information on how they came into being.) Soon Bishop is being hunted by people of all three factions, and while dealing with her magic re-surfacing (her parents bound it within her with spells until it would become necessary for her to use magic to survive) she also gets abducted, beat up and rescued several times by the manly vampire--all done in a very "damsel in distress" fashion. Bishops lesbian aunts, who are both witches, are constantly calling her and trying to keep her out of danger, only to encounter her new love, Clairmont the courtly vampire, whom witches are naturally supposed to despise. It then comes to light that the Congregation, a group of 3 vampires, three witches and three daemons, have written a set of rules that all agreed to follow that includes no fraternizing or falling in love with the enemy, meaning any of the other species of magical beings. Hence they begin hunting poor Bishop as well, now that she's professed her love of the undead Clairmont. The book ends with the star-crossed lovers deciding to go back in time to escape these hunters and to find someone who can teach Bishop how to reign in her magical powers, which are, of course, amazing and cover more types of magic than have been seen in centuries. The ending is barely an HEA, as we don't know how the couple will survive and find what they need in Will Shakespeare's England, but I'd imagine the sequel is just a year away, so we won't have to dwell on it for long.
I found this book to be like a mash-up of popular songs, with something for every Twilight, Sookie Stackhouse, Patricia Briggs, Harry Potter, Count St Germain and Dr Who fan out there, with all those lovely historical trivia and tidbits added in, and all that romance to appeal to the ladies. The cliches of having the heroine saved constantly by the hero, and allowing herself to be controlled and protected by him, as well as being a delicate blonde (heroines are always petite blondes or stunning petite raven haired temptresses in romance fiction--no larger women or buxom tall redheads allowed) who devolves into a childish state when the chips are down made me rather ill, and also made me lose a bit of respect for the author, who should have been able to imagine something less trite. However, though the prose was also a bit rough in spots, the plot moved along at a nice even pace and the characters were interesting enough to keep reading. The background of the novel, in upper New York state, France and England, also kept me reading and savoring the historical bits that Harkness stuffed into the novel like pimento-stuffed olives. Since it's her first book, I'd give the author a solid B, and recommend it to anyone interested in the history of alchemy, witches and the supernatural.

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