“A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness

Dana Thompson

After reading the first few chapters of Deborah Harkness’ novel “A Discovery of Witches,” I sat back and thought to myself, “Aha. So ‘Twilight’ has finally grown a brain.”

Fair warning: This novel does contain a vampire love story. The vampire is moody, overprotective and about sixty times older than his love interest. But, unlike “Twilight,” there would still be an interesting story to tell without the inclusion of a supernatural romance (and there’s no love triangle. I am so sick of love triangles). Instead, both main characters are specialists working at Oxford University. Diana (historian/witch) spends nearly all her time in the fantastic Bodleian Library––bibliophiles, look this up stat––researching ancient alchemical texts, while Matthew (geneticist/vampire) conducts complicated experiments in his lab and harbors a secret passion for yoga. Harkness’ interest in both scientific history and modern-day scientific research makes itself evident within the pages of “Witches.”

When reading this book, I found myself at times … learning. And it was interesting stuff, especially because I’d never found myself even wondering about the history of chemistry. It turns out that early chemists pretty much thought of themselves as magicians, since certain chemical reactions that are now easily explainable would have been completely baffling to chemists in the 17th century. The reader is led to wonder: If what they thought was magic is now commonplace, what if what we think of as magic has an explanation, too?

This is another thing I appreciate about “A Discovery of Witches” versus “Twilight”: It doesn’t just throw vampires and werewolves at you with a “pretend for a second that these are real” attitude––it actually tries to provide some evidence to back itself up. Maybe this is the “Lord of the Rings” fan in me coming out, but if you’re going to ask the reader to spend any amount of time in a fantastical setting, you better try to make it believable.

So, to provide a quick rundown of the plot: Diana Bishop, a witch who chooses not to use her powers (she views them as cursory shortcuts), one day discovers a strange text in her research of early alchemy: Ashmole 782. Immediately, she is stalked by every magical creature in the country (including this fairly attractive vampire geneticist) wanting access to secrets only the manuscript can divulge …

Although admittedly no great novel, full as it is of its fair share of insipidity and sappy romance, “A Discovery of Witches” is nonetheless an exciting read. Those of you about to crack open one of the “Twilight” series: Try this one instead.