Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Witches. And Vampires. and Daemons. Oh my.

Just after I finished reading Deborah Harkness' debut novel A Discovery of Witches I read an article in The New Yorker by Maria Bustillos in which she quoted George Orwell:
“The existence of good bad literature—the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one’s intellect simply refuses to take seriously—is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration.”
I'm not sure I'd put Witches even in the category of good bad literature.  The writing style is pedestrian and crosses the line into cliche on a regular basis, but every time my eyes would start to hurt from rolling them and I'd think "OK, I'm not sure I can go on with this" she would insert some plot point that would keep me interested and I'd think "Well, maybe a little further ...".  And when I got to the end I knew that I was going to read the sequel.   At some point.

There are people in this world who love to read about witches and vampires.  I am not one of them.

There are people in this world who wouldn't go near a book about witches or vampires with a ten foot pole.  I'm not one of them either. 

On the whole I find stories about vampires and witches silly, my love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter notwithstanding.  And this book is fairly silly.  There wasn't a hint of the vampires and witches being metaphors for a bigger world problem - except maybe, I suppose, racial problems.  But I think that's stretching it.  It's a fairly standard romance novel with a lead character who happens to be a witch and a dark, brooding romantic lead who just happens to be a vampire.  (Seriously, why are Vampires always brooding?  I think that's why Spike was popular - he didn't have the patience to brood long.)  At least Harkness doesn't make the vampires all cuddly.  Having a vampire in your life is, it seems, like choosing to make a wolf your pet.  Maybe you can pull it off but you'll never be completely comfortable around it.

I picked up this book because (1) my friendly neighborhood independent bookseller raved about it to me as a "perfect summer read" and (2) another friend who has similar taste as mine in books said she thought I'd really like it.  And after all the death of Regeneration and its sequels I wanted something light. Of course where there are vampires there is death ...

Deborah Harkness is an historian who has written scholarly works on Elizabethan England.  She says that the idea for this book struck her in 2008 when she wondered:  “if there really are vampires, what do they do for a living?”  I'd put good money on it that in 2008 she looked at the best seller Twilight and thought "For god's sake, even I could write something as good as that."  And then thought "heyyy,  why don't I try?".   And then she wondered what vampires did for a living.  

And good on her for actually coming up with the idea and getting it done.
The plot is decent for a standard romance novel plot and, as I said, it kept me reading.  The characters have potential but are stymied by cliche.  And, to reiterate, the writing style is pedestrian. 
One of the reasons I want to read the sequel is because I kept sensing potential in this novel that didn't quite flower.  I had the sense that many of the cliches were in the novel because she (or her editor) thought "well, I'd better throw this in because it will help the book sell".   In the sections that weren't so cliche ridden (the section where the characters are in the Occitan castle, for instance), her style was better.  Perhaps now that she has a bestseller behind her she'll feel comfortable letting some of the cliches go and get down to writing what she wants to write.  And since the sequel will be set in Tudor England she should be able to throw in a lot of historically accurate details. 

Speaking of detail, I love detail in novels.  This may be because I'm not a very visual reader, I need a lot of help to visualize what I'm supposed to be seeing.  Harkness throws in a lot of detail.  A LOT of detail.  Hopefully in her second novel she'll learn to scatter the detail throughout the scene instead of throwing in pages and pages of description at one time.  I finally just started skimming the food and wine description scenes.

My biggest gripe about this novel is that while it is clear that she wants to create a modern heroine who isn't a damsel in distress - she created a character who is regularly a damsel in distress.  I think that this mostly occurs because Harkness felt she needed to write a "saleable" vampire and so she (cliche alert) writes him as having a very old fashioned possessive streak.  After all, he is 1500 years old and was brought up in a time when men were men and women belonged to them.  It's probably hard to come up with creative ways to show this character trait in a positive way and it's relatively easy to rely on the old standby of putting the heroine in distress and letting the hero take care of her.  Of course to do this you need the heroine to be genuinely in distress and in need of help because otherwise any sane modern woman would just be creeped out by all that possessiveness. 

But once the distress is over, Harkness attempts to make the heroine re-assert her independence. Again and again.  It all ended up a little disjointed.  Maybe by the next novel she'll feel more comfortable with how she writes Vampire Matthew.  It strikes me that a 1500 year old vampire who is a top scholar studying DNA in a very modern medical research facility, who flies in a private jet, is glued to his laptop and is constantly on his cell phone, probably has the ability to evolve his understanding of how to treat women in the same way that he slowly but surely moved from horses to combustion engines to flying machines.  We'll see.