[books] A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I just finished reading Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of WitchesPowells | BN ], a December, 2011 release from Penguin. It was interesting and a fair amount of fun, but definitely had that ‘mainstream author writes fantasy without being aware of the history or tropes of the genre’ feel. All the same, and perhaps because of that, Harkness’ take on witches and vampires was sufficiently divergent from the classic patterns to be interesting.

Also interesting to me in terms of my own reader reactions to this book was my realization about halfway through that the genre tropes Harkness is working within are more tied to romance than fantasy. Which explained the female witch protagonist’s constant fainting and passing out and needing to be carried about hither and yon by the male vampire love interest. That wouldn’t fly in a strong female fantasy character, but it is a trope (or subtrope or something) of romance.

What I really did like about the book was that much of it was set at Oxford University, and the sense of scholarship and history in the book is very strong. Our heroine is a historian specializing in the traditions of alchemy, and Harkness really made me believe that in a big way. She acted like a historian, thought like one, talked like one. Harkness’ own scholarship in writing the book was certainly deep enough to be utterly convincing to me. Her interweaving of history with the plot was fascinating.

This book was a lot of fun. It’s the first third of a trilogy, so very little of the plot is resolved at the ending, but that’s life. Worth the read.

3 thoughts on “[books] A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

  1. Gene says:

    Topos, not trope, is what the vapors are called in this situation.

  2. Cora says:

    Constant fainting and passing out hasn’t been a common romance trope in a long time now. It still happens on occasion, mostly in historicals though Bella passes out a few times in the Twilight books, but it’s far from normal.

    The trope of frequent fainting was popular in the late 18th and 19th century, not just in romances and not just for heroines, e.g. in The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne by Ann Radcliffe (first published in 1789) the very manly Scottish hero promptly faints at the sight of the headsman sharpening his axe.

    Though the frequent fainting did survive into the 20th century. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the original Flash Gordon series from 1936, but Dale Arden faints all the time in that one.

    Because the novel is apparently very much focused in history and scholarship, it would make sense for Deborah Harkness to employ common fictional tropes of the 18th and 19th century.

    Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I didn’t get around to reading it yet, but it’s on my list.

  3. Nancy McClure says:

    Women in fashionable corsets, in real life, fainted more than we are used to (but presumably less than fictional characters did).

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