Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Recently Read: A Discovery of Witches

A Discovery of Witches: A NovelI picked up A Discovery of Witches to find out why a book that was essentially an urban fantasy -- witches and demons and vampires, oh my! -- was being marketed so heavily at the mainstream.  It had a prominent (non-urban fantasy) slot on the Barnes & Noble e-newsletter, and it is still hanging out on their front of store promotion tables.  The other thing that differentiates its marketing from that of most urban fantasy books is that there's no representations of the characters on the cover.    That might have been the biggest flag for me: what was so different about this novel that the publishers thought they didn't need to use the biggest telltale signs of the genre to get readers?

Is it different?  Yes and no.  The main character isn't a never-does-well-in-school teenage Buffy Summers, she's a 30ish woman with a PhD in Medieval alchemical texts.  But Buffy was born to be the slayer, and Dr. Diana Bishop was born a witch, a really freakin powerful witch it turns out.  Oh and they both have vampire sidekicks/boyfriends.

The biggest difference is that in A Discovery of Witches the characters are a Medieval historian and a vampire who has lived through the Middle Ages, and they're more than willing to start chatting in depth about historical this or that.  And yes, the author has done her research.  Actually I'm willing to bet that the author has a background in academia and has studied these kinds of things.  Does that make her characters more realistic? Maybe.  But as someone who's spent time in academia as well as studied genre fiction, I'm willing to say that there are many passages where it feels like the author stopped writing a novel, and started writing a paper.  Oh, an entertaining paper as far as academic research goes, but there's a definite shift there.  And maybe if you haven't spent time in academia and studying genre fic, you wouldn't catch it, but it was glaring to me.

The author also spends a lot of time on the logistics and mechanics of things which may not be particularly important to the story.  When the issue of time travel is brought up, the vampire goes out and gets the witch, Diana, a whole passel of vaccines against diseases from the time period.  Yes, these are issues that matter to scientists and historians, but it snags the narrative and drags it down -- unless she's going to get sick while time traveling, or she's dumped into the middle of a smallpox outbreak and is then worshiped as a goddess (or burned as a witch) for not not contracting the disease herself, then the procurement, injection, and discussion or the vaccines is just shoe leather, i.e. logistics that aren't necessary to the reader's experience.

But the novel was enjoyable.  And yes, it was an interesting break from sassy, butt-kicking, black-leather-wearing urban fantasy heroines.  And I did love-hate the vampire (and love-hate is almost better than love when it comes to vamp characters).  So why not read this one?  Why not. Go for it. It's not the smoothest written novel ever but it's entertaining and many of the ideas are intriguing. But I'll warn you that it's unfinished.  The ending obviously sets up the next book.  And it only seems fair that you know that going into it.

And -- I couldn't find anywhere else to add this in -- but the whole time I was reading about Medieval texts and science and medicine, I kept thinking about Elizabeth Twist.  I'd love to hear what an actual Medievalist thinks of this novel!

Highly Recommended