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Books: 'A Discovery of Witches' by Deborah Harkness, reviewed by Elizabeth Hand

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By Elizabeth Hand
Thursday, March 3, 2011

"This is a book about books," Deborah Harkness says in the acknowledgments to her first novel, "A Discovery of Witches." But don't be fooled by that statement, or the fact that Harkness is a noted scholar on the history of science and the author of several works on the Elizabethan era. What "A Discovery of Witches" is really about is yet another unconsummated affair between a mortal (though supernatural) woman and a hot, smoldering-eyed vampire who explores his feelings with statements such as, "I will not give in to this craving for her blood. I do not want to control her power. And I certainly have no wish to make her a vampire."

"That leaves love," his confidant retorts. "You have your answer, then."

Readers will get their answers, as well - mostly unsurprising ones, if they're familiar with the novels of Stephenie Meyer, Anne Rice and Kelley Armstrong. Harkness's book opens with Diana Bishop, an American academic, perusing a mysterious, alchemical manuscript known as "Ashmole 782," in the reading room of Oxford's Bodleian Library. "Traces of gilt shone along its edges and caught my eye. But those faded touches of gold could not account for a faint, iridescent shimmer that seemed to be escaping from between the pages."

"782" is no ordinary manuscript, and Dr. Bishop is no ordinary historian. She is the last of the Bishop witches, whose ancestor was executed in Salem. Alas, neither their magical powers nor Harvard educations could save Diana's anthropologist parents from nasty, witchcraft-inflicted deaths during a research trip to Africa, leaving their orphan daughter to be raised by her aunt, another witch. A whiz at whatever she turns her hand to, Diana stubbornly eschews the use of magic. She still manages to start college at 16 and goes on to earn a doctorate in 17th-century chemistry from Oxford, where she opens that shimmering bundle of parchment and discovers that three pages have been removed, hinting at a bibliophiliac mystery a la A.S. Byatt's "Possession."

"782" is, in fact, a book sleeping within a book - a magical palimpsest that, long ago, was bewitched to respond to Diana's touch. Unfortunately, Harkness appears to have been bewitched by another sort of book. Enter Matthew Clairmont, a professor of biochemistry affiliated with Oxford Neuroscience, member of the Royal Society and, yes, a vampire.

"As my eyes swept over him, his own were fixed on me . . . black as night, staring up under thick, equally black eyebrows, one of them lifted in a curve that suggested a question mark. . . . Above his chin was one of the few places where there was room for softness - his wide mouth. . . . But the most unnerving thing about him was not his physical perfection. It was his feral combination of strength, agility, and keen intelligence that was palpable across the room."

That Matthew is a vampire comes as no shock to Diana. Hers is a world populated by witches, vampires and demons, who co-exist, Harry Potter-style, with Muggle-ish humans, known as warmbloods. One of Harkness's more charming notions is that witches and demons, along with the odd vampire, are often found in libraries, the way angels haunt Berlin in Wim Wenders's "Wings of Desire." These supernatural creatures coexist in an uneasy alliance designed to keep humans from being aware of their existence. But the missing pages from "782" suggest that something ominous is afoot, and Diana's unwitting awakening of ancient magic has brought her to the attention of all sorts of creatures, including Matthew Clairmont.

A pas de demon ensues. Will Diana succumb to Matthew's charms, his eyes that twinkle "like black stars," his "hungry lips," his cool fingers that "touched the only inches of my body that remained uncharted"? Is the pope a vampire?

Well, actually, in these pages he is, but even a too-brief cameo by a bloodthirsty medieval pontiff doesn't liven things up. Matthew is 1,500 years old; this novel's pacing is so torpid that readers may feel that aged, too. Various plot elements - a series of murders, the analysis of supernatural DNA, revelations of an ancient order of creatures modeled on the Knights Templar, and a vicious Finnish witch, not to mention those three missing pages - are introduced then swiftly forgotten, so as to get back to Diana and Matthew exchanging soulful looks. As in the "Twilight" series and untold romance novels, sexual consummation is delayed, though there's a lot of consensual creature foreplay.

But Harkness does get in a few nice set pieces. The lovers' sojourn in Matthew's ancestral chateau is well-done, and some of the supporting characters are marvelous, notably Matthew's mother, a vampire chatelaine. French vampires don't get fat; they don't get old, either.

The pace finally steps up in the last 100 pages. The ending, in which Diana and Matthew beat a hasty retreat, made me wish the book had started there. If Harkness doesn't ring many changes upon the overworked tropes of paranormal romance, at least she leaves readers with hope of a more engaging sequel.

Hand's most recent novel is "Illyria." Michael Dirda will return next week.

A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES

By Deborah Harkness

Viking. 579 pp. $28.95


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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