Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness - a DNF postmortem - Now with fewer typos

I know that some people have serious trouble with the concept of a book review when the reader didn't actually finish the book, but this book has been bugging me for days since it acted like a total speed bump for my Bout of Books. Therefore I decided to call this a postmortem rather than a review.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
So - according to the back cover "Deep in the heart of Oxford's Bodleian Library, Diana Bishop - a young scholar and the descendant of witches - unearths an enchanted alchemical manuscript. Wanting nothing to do with sorcery, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery has set a fantastical underworld stirring, and soon a horde of daemons, witches, and other creatures descends upon the library. Among them is the enigmatic Matthew Clairmont, a vampire with a keen interest in the book. Equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense, A Discovery of Witches is a mesmerizing and addicitive tale of passion and obsession that reveals the closely guarded secrets of an enchanted world."

Sound promising, right. Well - ARGH - the adjectives are lies!

Right, so this super, fantastic, amazing and remarkably young protagonist is slowly, very, very, slowly, plowing through some manuscripts for no clearly discernible purpose (based on her actions she is simply cataloging volumes which is a rather idiotic thing for a tenured professor of history to be doing - that is what graduate student are for, duh). She submits a call sheet (I will explain the italics in a minute) for a manuscript known as the Ashmole 782 which turns out to be magical and weird and potentially fascinating, but due to her history* and personal beliefs - she basically freaks and gives the book back to be re-shelved (which is hardly banishment). [This is also the section where I ranted earlier that the way everyone knew Diana's mother was a special, amazing witch is that she did her housework by magic.] (BTW - this first chapter has more action than anything in the next 7, which is how I got conned into buying the book. The set up was totally my jam.)

*[Diana is supposed to be descended from Bridget Bishop (on her mother's side - the whole keeping the Bishop name thing was amazingly strained) and John Proctor (on her father's side), both victims of the Salem witch trials. So the implication here is that there really were witches in Salem ?  Does that mean that they really did the things that they were accused of?  Because "witch" John was accused of some pretty terrible things, while the real, innocent, human man stood faithfully by his wife (who was also accused) and tried to get the trials stopped. The tragedy of Salem was that innocent people were killed due to hysteria, so in this revised version of events, if they were witches, then the point of this history -  is ... unclear to me. Humans are meanies? I really don't like this - it feels like another attack on innocent people and a cheap shot for drama's sake.]   

Folding Library StepsAnyhow, now that Diana has touched the book - all heck is now, very, very slowly braking loose. Right, so in Chapter 2 - our heroine goes back to the library, and is confronted with stairs. Which are very inconvenient. So after all of the history and angst of the last chapter explaining how she would never, never use magic in her scholarly life and only uses it under the most dire circumstances, she uses magic because it is too much trouble to find a step stool. How dire. (BTW - that lovely image of a step stool is from - this is not an endorsement of any kind - I just think that is a beautiful step stool).

And so this is of course the point that Matthew shows up to see her using magic.  Then we get lots of totally insane fap about how vampires are hot. Oh, oh and this line...

"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."  Okay - so leaving aside the whole physical perfection thing, all he is doing is standing there staring at her!  WTF?  How do you stare with 'agility' or 'keen intelligence' that was 'palpable'? I just... I don't ... ack!
So she meets our hero, runs away from him and then explains how lots of scientists are vampires because scientists have no social life and no one would ever notice that they didn't age. (Speaking as a Ph.D. scientist who runs a lab, um ... most politely .. F U author).

So now that the book has been touched, more vampires, daemons, and other witches now have the audacity to come and stare at our heroine (and apparently a horde is less than a dozen these days). And staring is, like, super important because we are repeatedly informed that a daemon's stare is like an icky kiss, a vampire's stare is like frost burn and another witches' stare is like a prickly, itchy poke (or something). And all three of them are different species from humans. Righhhhht.

Matthew - breaks (well, climbs) into her room to search for the manuscript, which is from the closed stacks at the library and therefore would not leave the building. SO why the hell is he looking in her room. Go to the library superman. And apparently all of the other staring supernaturals are also after the book, so why the hell don't they submit a call sheet and request the damn thing? There isn't a single sentence explaining why this didn't happen. Shit, couldn't a 1500 year old multi PhD vampire read her notes and get the damn call number of the manuscript ?  Or break into the stacks and find it ? Or ask her ? I worked in a rare book library at a University and I can tell you from personal experience, it is not the blackhole of Calcutta in the stacks. Things do not just disappear.  Hell - if the manuscript had just been returned at the end of the day and needed a new box, it would either still be sitting on the selves in the desk area waiting to be re-stocked or it would in a repair room waiting for a new box. Not hard to find. Why didn't they just ask for the call number?  WTF? 

But the staring doesn't daunt our heroine because she has now met our hero Matthew and he is apparently perfect and amazing and, whatever - he's Vampyre Ken Doll. (As an aside - why are we calling these characters vampires anymore ? He can be out in sunlight, he doesn't need to be in contact with the soil of his homeland, if he works in Oxford he clearly isn't worried about crucifixes or any other religious iconography, he is not undead and apparently can have children, he doesn't appear to have fangs (retractable?), I have no idea about his reflection - as far as I can work out Matthew is just a very long lived guy with a gastrointestinal disorder and subject to mood swings, which in my mind =/= vampire.)

Right - so more unnecessary vapid detail, more gibberish - tea, breakfast, dee da, and then back to the library. Diana apparently realizes that Matthew is stalking her, so she of course takes the next logical step and climbs into his car to go to breakfast. (?!!?!?!)

I just realized how long this is getting - the prose style in the book must be catching. Next I will be describing, several times, how I make my tea (BTW - every tea lover I know actually has more information about the tea they like, since there are several kinds of tea, but Diana apparently just substitutes the word tea for coffee and drinks it accordingly. What is this stuff - Typhoo? PG Tips?  When I was in London, if you ordered tea you had to be a bit more specific about what you wanted.)

BUT I have to toss in this gem ...

pg 71 "Someday you'll have to explain to me the relationship between neuroscience, DNA research, animal behavior, and evolution. They don't obviously fit together."

Only someone who totally failed to understand any and all natural science their entire school career could mange to come up with an observation that dumb. Really - several related branches of biology don't obviously fit together ?  That was a book tossing moment - it really was. But I controlled myself and kept going a little longer. 

Right - so this reminded me of one more biology related rant - according to the story humans, vampires, witches and daemons are all different species. A really simple definition of the concept of species is a group of individuals that can interbreed in nature and produce viable offspring (i.e. their babies can have babies). Also according to the book: vampires have vampire children (so they can't be undead, right? and shouldn't the world be overrun with vampires by now? the bits in this part of the book don't seem to mesh with what is said later in the book) and witches have witch children (like Diana) - so tentatively you might still be able to suggest that they are different species from humans and each other as long as they really can't interbreed and produce offspring (except that Diana and Matthew are going to get it on, and shouldn't that be like a gorilla dating an orangutang ? Urgk. Don't get it.) 

But ... daemons apparently appear spontaneously sometimes from human parents and daemons are able to have children - so daemons have to be the same species as humans. I just found out that later in the book they meet a daemon born to witches, so this means that witches, daemons and humans all have to be the same species. The more I hear about this book the less sense it makes.

So I tried to re-invigorate my suspension of disbelief and managed to slog on through chapter 8, the Yoga class. Because of course the next thing you do when a guy is stalking you is to jump into his car and let him just take you to points unknown at night. And when you are an author, you can totally spend a chapter describing in tedious detail the events of a yoga class for no plot driven purpose. (Now I can totally appreciate long, detail oriented books. I love Name of the Rose which I have read multiple times, Foucault's Pendulum was fine. I finished Blackout/All Clear and if the history had made any sense at all I would have liked them. I am a tenured academic myself, and I love interesting details and can even live with info dumps if they are diverting. But in this book - nope - this stuff was monotonous at best.) 

I have just figured out how to describe the difference - if the author took this opportunity to explain the history of the salute to the sun or the origins of yoga - that would be an info dump and could potentially be interesting depending on how it was handled. If you explain how yoga is used to center yourself in order to be a better witch/vampire/daemon and/or how it helps improve the flow of magic - that could potentially be a plot point that could be utilized later to explain why our heroine couldn't accomplish something and needed to do yoga in order to center herself (as long as you don't go and explain it all over again). Instead what the author does is basically describe what you see going on in a yoga class - like ... the room is filled with people sitting on mats stretching and waiting for class, now they all stand up and start to perform the steps for the salute to the sun, now they are all bent over in downward facing dog position sticking their butts in the air, now they are stretching their backs ... etc. etc. etc. though the entire class.  That is just boring.   

At this point I admitted defeat. I couldn't read another word of this book. Nope, nope, nope.  Can't do it right now.  Not even to get to the totally inaccurate descriptions of what a biology lab looks like that apparently await. I would have to MST3K this book and I have better things to do with my time - like clean the microwave. I finally found a few other reviews that had my take on this ridiculously over-hyped book and they have convinced me that reading further would be a waste of my time.

This book is a total ... HISS for me. (This is why people hate going to movies with me too - I know too much science and get really snarky when things get stupid. My disbelief can suspend with the best of them, but you have to be at least self consistent.)

I just found the coolest chapter by chapter reading of this book that does a great job of explaining, in more detail, the kinds of things I hated in the bit I read and allowed me see what happens in the rest of the book so that I don't have to actually read it and end up throwing it across the room in disgust. I can't stand abusive relationships couched as "true love."

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