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A Discovery of Witches

February 8, 2019

On the advice of a friend and suspecting necromancy (rightly), I read the first novel of Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy, A Discovery of Witches. There are good things about the novel, enough to keep me reading. The heroine is a strong and capable woman, a professor of History who studies alchemy and who also happens to be a witch descended from the Bishop and Proctor families (of Salem witch trial fame). The author is herself a professor of History, so the characterization of her heroine and the way she weaves in details and characters from history is done well.

The part that took way too much time and felt derivative to me was the courtship of the two main characters, the witch Diana and the vampire Matthew. Sadly, this is another woman-falls-in-love-with-a-vampire romance. Have we not had enough of these since Twilight? This one seems to have also been influenced by the popularity of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, with its abundance of hurt/comfort moments and dominant/submissive sexual fantasy.

But the mystery in this novel centers around a search for the philosopher’s stone—the “instructions on how to concoct the elixir of life so you can transform mortal into immortal flesh”–so how could I resist? Harkness develops a trope, used repeatedly thoughout her novel, in which something supernatural is compared to a legend from the past, with the suggestion that the legend was based on something real. She has one of her supernatural creatures—a “daemon”–compare the philosopher’s stone to her three kinds of supernatural creatures, saying “the philosopher’s stone was just a legend, like the Holy Grail or Atlantis. It couldn’t possibly be real….vampires, daemons, and witches weren’t supposed to be real either.”

Another supernatural element of the novel that is compared to a legend from the past is the vampire hero’s association with “the Knights of Lazarus of Bethany….It’s an old chivalric order.” When asked if they are “like the Knights of Columbus” Matthew replies that they “date back to the Crusades,” and then says nothing when the witch he is talking to (Diana’s aunt) declares that “there’s no such thing as Templars now” and Diana points out that “there aren’t supposed to be witches and vampires either.”

Any legend about magic is fair game, evidently. Diana and her father have the ability to walk through time, and she says “the science of this still worries me. Where does this body go when I’m somewhere else?” That this novel is fantasy rather than science fiction is obvious from the answer she gets: “who knows? But don’t worry. It’s happened to everybody. You drive to work and don’t remember how you got there. Or the whole afternoon passes and you don’t have a clue what you did. Whenever something like that happens, you can bet there’s a timewalker nearby.”

Another trope, common in modern novels with supernatural characters, is the explanation of the supernatural by simplified science. When our heroine Diana finds an alchemical manuscript hidden in the Bodleian Library that could reveal the origins of Vampires, Witches, and Daemons, her vampire love interest, Matthew, who is 1500 years old and studies medicine, says he believes that evolution is involved. Matthew and his research assistants Marcus and Miriam have been collecting and analyzing DNA samples to find out how the other supernatural creatures are born, not made. (Vampires are made, in this story, as in most others, although here “the influx of a vampire’s blood forces spontaneous genetic mutations in every cell of the body.”) As Matthew describes it to Diana, her ancestors:
“as the centuries passed, relied less and less on magic and witchcraft as they struggled to survive. Those changing needs began to force mutations in [their] DNA—mutations that pushed the magic aside….It seems that witches, like vampires, have also felt the pressure of surviving in a world that is increasingly human. Daemons, too. They exhibit less genius—which was how we used to distinguish them from the human population—and more madness….We think that humans have—until now—proved better at adapting. Their immune systems are more responsive, and they have a stronger urge to reproduce than either vampires or witches. Once the world was divided more evenly between humans and creatures. Now humans are in the majority and creatures make up only ten percent of the world’s population….Humans have twenty-three chromosomal pairs in every cell nucleus, each arranged in long code sequences. Vampires and witches have twenty-four chromosome pairs….[daemons] have the same number of chromosome pairs as humans—but they also have a single extra chromosome. As far as we can tell, it’s their extra chromosome that makes them daemonic…and prone to instability.”

Diana is special (of course she is) because she has a “genetic predisposition” for every power ever attributed to a witch: precognition, flight, finding things that are lost, talking with the dead, transmogrification, telekinesis, spell casting, charms, curses, mind reading, telepathy, empathy, and control of earth, air, fire, and water. She is more powerful than any other living creature, but she doesn’t know how to command her powers. Matthew, who has declared himself her husband by the last third of the novel, is determined to help her with that.

But Diana, alas, doesn’t know any better than to perform necromancy when her vampire husband is dying (evidently he can die: “the jugular is nearly severed, and the aorta has been damaged. Not even Matthew’s blood can work fast enough to heal him in both places”). She calls on a goddess rather than a demon (good) but she doesn’t ask what the price will be (bad). Her offer, which you know is going to turn out to be heartbreaking, is “take anything—take anyone. But leave me him.” For the record, my guess is that she’ll have a baby (yes, that looks like it’s going to be possible, even with a vampire husband) and then the goddess will nip off with the wee babe.

At the end of the novel, Diana and Matthew are headed to the past to give her the chance to learn how to use her powers and to meet Matthew’s friend “Kit,” who turns out to be the playwright Christopher Marlowe. We’re told that “Christopher Marlowe was a daemon.”

A Discovery of Witches is a romp, aside from the very slow romance elements, so I’m looking forward to reading the second one in the series, but I’ll be skimming very fast through the inevitably snail-paced conception and gestation of the couple’s witch/vampire baby.

 

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2019 1:12 am

    I started watching the TV adaptation of this and I didn’t dislike it but I just sort of forgot to keep watching after the first two episodes. If Christopher Marlowe’s going to make an appearance I might persevere! Sounds fun, although I think you’re right about the vampire-witch baby.

  2. February 8, 2019 8:34 am

    I started this but there wasn’t enough of interest to keep me reading. I suppose some people must have thought differently of it’s made it to a trilogy and I televised version. I wasn’t aware of the latter.

    • February 14, 2019 9:35 pm

      The TV version has made people talk about the books again, which is why I heard about them. I can’t leave any page unturned if there might be necromancy…

  3. February 8, 2019 10:59 am

    That’s not my kind of book but my sister loved the series.

    • February 14, 2019 9:36 pm

      I’m not sure it’s my kind of book either, but there is an element of morbid fascination.

  4. February 13, 2019 11:10 am

    I’m glad you enjoyed reading this novel. I have been seeing it floating around since last year but haven’t read it yet. Philosopher’s stone reminds me of Harry Potter’s first book. Great review!

    • February 14, 2019 9:37 pm

      Oh yes, and the search for the Philosopher’s Stone often gets caught up with the dangers of necromancy.
      Thanks!

  5. February 14, 2019 9:10 pm

    I really loved this book before Diana hooked up with Matthew. After Diana’s protests about such a relationship it didn’t seem believable and it took up too much of the more interesting aspects of the book. I stopped reading it because it felt like a slog. A baby? Yikes!

    • February 14, 2019 9:39 pm

      It was a bit of a slog, and yet the morbid fascination keeps me going. In the second book there’s already been a baby, but it was miscarried. I’m sure there will be another.

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