‘Discovery’ deemed grown-up Twilight

I picked up Deborah Harkness’ debut novel, “A Discovery of Witches,” on the recommendation of a friend. While I can’t say what that friend expected, I’m certain she did not anticipate my response.

The 579-page monster follows Diana Bishop. Her family descends from witches — back to a woman executed in Salem — but Diana has chosen to live without magic and has instead pursued a career as a historian.

One day in the library, she opens an ancient manuscript and unknowingly breaks an enchantment, which sets the events of the novel in motion.

Before the week is out, Diana has been threatened by other witches, daemons, and (of course) vampires, all of whom want to get their hands on the manuscript and the secrets it contains. Frightened, Diana turns to a strange ally: a 1,500-year-old vampire named Matthew Clairmont.

But this book is not based on intrigue or action. The opening chapters provide boring backstory leading up to the initial burst of tension, followed by what Harkness clearly considers the interesting plot: the transparent, eye-rolling romance between our inane heroine and her unspeakably wealthy and talented vampire lover with a past. It’s Twilight for grown-ups.

The main character is problematic. She begins fiercely independent and steadily becomes a less active player in her life as the “alpha vampire” issues orders and she obeys. She is the picture of a Mary Sue (a character who is annoyingly perfect and lacks realistic flaws) and by lucky coincidence is the most powerful witch born in several hundred years. Criminally self-involved, she ignores the well-being of others if it conflicts with what she wants.

One can easily imagine Harkness giggling to herself as she penned this incredible specimen of wish fulfillment. The writing is self-gratifyingly cheesy. Matthew calls Diana a few flinch-worthy nicknames (e.g., “ma lionne” and “ma coeur”).

One metaphor, that the queen in chess is so important she must be protected, is so terrible I screamed. The supposedly scientific explanation of how “creatures” like witches exist is so appalling that I’d recommend anyone who has taken more than one science class to skip chapter 13. It would have been better had Harkness not bothered.

“Discovery” has caused quite a buzz since its release last year, when it debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list. It has already been optioned by Warner Brothers along with its sequel, which is due summer 2012. Five hundred seventy-nine pages aren’t enough to tell the story of Diana Bishop, and the deeply unsatisfying ending is testament to the fact that “Discovery” begins yet another fantasy trilogy.

The unlikely romance unfolds in an improbable three weeks and at times I had difficulty continuing. The attitudes on women are empowering on the surface but speak to a deep-rooted desire for a man to act as savior. Many important developments in Diana’s life occur without her knowledge or consent, and she always allows it.

Still, despite my overwhelming desire to hurt almost every character, there was something about this book that has appeal. It’s compulsively readable and amusing in that awful way. Recommended for fans of Twilight and those not easily upset.


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