Monday, January 16, 2012

Book 2: A Discovery of Witches

This novel has been showing up in my Amazon recommendations for a while now, but I kept hesitating.  I think the main issue for me was the part of the back cover that describes it as "equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense" - don't get me wrong, I enjoy a well written love story plot line as much as anyone but the word romance makes me think Harlequin.  When Barnes and Noble had a whole shelf end devoted to the paperback edition of this novel, I ignored my instincts and picked it up.  After all, this could still be an exciting story, and using the term romance may have been a way to appeal to a broader audience.  Unfortunately, I should have trusted my gut.
The most simple way to describe this novel is an adult version of Twilight (except an adult version of Twilight would have sex, and this book doesn't).  I feel a bit bad labeling it as such since the author obviously put a lot of work into the research, and unlike Meyers, can actually write a sentence (is it world-shattering, breath-taking prose? No, but it's grammatically coherent).  However, it suffers from many of the same flaws as Twilight: a controlling man who is supposed to be romantic, two hundred pages of them staring at each other with little plot development, and lots of mooning which was pathetic for a 100 year old vampire but unforgiveable for one who is 1500 years old.  Matthew, our vampire, also spends a lot of time talking about how hard it is to resist Diana and there is a lot of talk about what people, or Diana specifically, smell like (Buffy: "Did anybody ever tell you the whole smelling people thing's a little gross?")
However, a lame love plot with boring characters isn't the novel's only pitfall.  I love historical fiction, and a few authors that have written good historical fiction have talked about some of the temptations they have to avoid: sometimes as part of their research, they discover fascinating and fun facts that have no place in the novel.  It can be hard but as a novelist, it isn't the author's job to tell the reader every little detail they learned, it is their job to make the reader feel like what they are reading is authentic.  The author needs to know the fun, obscure facts to make the novel real but the author isn't supposed to just list all the facts for the reader.  Harkness obviously did a lot of research on a variety of topics, but there are several points where she just drops names or topics and they have no connection to the book.  Matthew is old, got it, does that mean I need to know every single famous person he ever knew?  One or two would have been sufficient.  There are long discussions of wine, vintages and tastes - I drink wine but I can't distinguish flavors very well beyond sweet, fruity, and "not sweet, take it away."  Learning about wine at a wine tasting would be very fun.  Reading about people having a wine tasting is a lot less so, especially when they describe it as tasting like "chalk and butterscotch" - I'm not even sure if that's supposed to be good.  There is a scene where Diana makes dinner for her new vampire friend, and it just gets annoying how much she describes what she might cook for him.  Why do I care?  I don't even cook for myself.  Harkness also repeats herself quite a bit but also seems to contradict herself a lot.  I can't even say how often she mentioned in the first hundred pages that the three species of creatures (daemon, vampires and witches) don't mix or like to interact.
Honestly, the worst part is that this novel actually had some good ideas and really could have gone somewhere if Harkness hadn't been distracted (was the yoga really necessary?) or had tightened her plotting.  Diana, for example, is descended from a long line of powerful witches though she herself as tried to avoid using her powers since her parents were murdered when she was young.  After she accidentally discovers a lost manuscript that has been magically sealed, she attracts the attention of the magical world: the book may contain the origin of their species, an explanation of where they come from and why they exist.  Everyone's reactions to this manuscript also make Diana begin to reevaluate her parents' death - suddenly, it seems like there might be more to their murder.  As a result, Diana begins to realize she needs to learn how to use her powers, and it is obvious that she has the most potential power any witch has had in a long time.  There is also a group referred to as the Congregation which is made up of three representatives from each group of creatures to ensure everyone follows the rules.  Matthew is a scientist, and he and two other vampires, have actually been examining the DNA of the different creatures, and have been able to genetically mark which powers a witch will have.  Their research also shows that magical creatures are becoming weaker and may be on the verge of going extinct.  The novel has a large group of supporting characters, all of whom are more interesting than Diana, the powerful witch, and Matthew, the controlling, love-struck vampire.  However, someone decided that this should be a trilogy so instead of having one tensely plotted suspense novel, the public will get screwed with three meandering novels.  Of course, the second and third one aren't out yet, so maybe I'll be proven wrong.  Not that I'll know, because there is no way I'm picking up the sequel.  The only reason I even finished this novel is so that I could accurately bitch about it.  Below is just an example of some of the lines that annoyed me and my reaction:
"It was ludicrous to think that promises made by creatures in the Middle Ages could affect Matthew and me (274)" - um, sweetie, your boyfriend is 1500 years old - he was one of those creatures.
"She hunts out of biological need.  You hunt because it makes you feel wholly alive (348)." - How the fuck is that better?  And just because this is a vampire novel, do I really need to watch a vampire eat a deer?  Or a rabbit?


Helena said...

Fantastic! You captured the book very accurately (and much better than I could).

Jean Lewis said...

I had been looking at this book for a year. When the publisher offered me a trade paper copy I decided to go ahead and read it. I am a huge fan of the early Anne Rice books. Loved The Witching Hour. Thought maybe, just maybe, this might be comparable. But, tossed the book down after a couple hundred pages. Writing is good, but characters just did not do it for me. You have summed it up nicely. Thanks for an honest review.