This is not exactly my proudest admission, but the number one place I get my book recommendations is the Entertainment Weekly Books section. It may not be the New York Review of Books, but EW’s book section tends to include a good mix of literary fiction, genre fiction, and nonfiction, and the reviews generally manage to assess the book without giving away the whole plot. They also tend to be pretty stringent with their grading–they have no issues giving C or D grades to big names or wildly-praised books such as Run by Ann Patchett or Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross. Which is why I was excited to read their review of A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. EW gave it a B+ and the review made is sound like a solid, well-written book with believable characters that just happened to feature witches and vampires–in other words, exactly the sort of urban fanstay based in the modern-day world that I love. I knew going in that it wasn’t Faulkner, but I had high hopes that I might have found another genre book that incorporates the supernatural while not being trashy or badly written. Which is why I was a little dismayed to realize that it was basically Twilight for grown-ups.
Without giving too much away, the basic plot is that witches, vampires, and daemons are all real, but they live fairly normal lives alongside oblivious humans. (Side note: is it just me, or did the His Dark Materials series pretty much take over that spelling of daemon?) Diana is witch, part of powerful and famous witch family, who is trying to distance herself from her powers by living a quiet life as a graduate student at Oxford. Then she accidentally does something that attracts the attention of the supernatural community, she meets a dangerous yet irresistible vampire named Matthew, and her whole life starts racing away into adventure, danger, romance, etc.
Here are my three main issues with this book:
1) The lead character falls totally, immediately, and completely in love with a vampire, despite his vampiric nature, in exactly the same way Bella does in Twilight. In an adolescent this is annoying, but somewhat understandable and forgivable. In a grown-ass woman, it just seems like bad decision making.
2) The book is 592 pages long and it ends on a cliff hanger. After I read the book I learned that it’s the first in a planned trilogy. Look, I love a good book series, but I also pretty firmly believe that individual books should stand alone. Sure, plot threads may carry from one book to another, but it makes me grumpy when a book just stops in the middle of things. I like to think of a book as an entity both physically and in terms of the story telling. If the author can’t figure out how to make a single book at least somewhat satisfying and functional in and of itself, I start losing trust in them. (See also: Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis.)
3) The witches and vampires and daemons in Oxford all go to a special hot yoga class together. HOT YOGA.
Don’t get me wrong, I read it and enjoyed most of it and it was definitely better written than Twilight. I suspect I’ll read the next one, if only to figure out what happens next since there was certainly no closure in this book. And there were some lovely parts–Diana’s family has a haunted house that is both creepy and considerate (creating new rooms when company is coming), and the descriptions of Oxford make me want to book a trip there–but I just feel like I need to warn other people who might be looking for more literary fantasy. Twilight for grown-ups.
But I hear good things about the new Colson Whitehead zombie book Zone One. His book The Intuitionist managed to be beautiful and heart-breaking and thrilling while describing an alternate reality in which elevators are glorified, so right now he’s got my trust. (Yes, elevators. And it’s about racism. It’s great.)