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Regular sufferers of this community may be familiar with my general dislike of the new genre of "paranormal romance". However, I was tempted to pick up Deborah Harkness' fat novel A Discovery of Witches from a charity shop a little while ago, because it had a nice cover and cost 50p. Plus I always like to know just what I'm slagging off - or perhaps I would even be pleasantly surprised if the book was good. But did I end up mourning the loss of the king's ransom I paid for it?


The jacket proudly proclaims that A Discovery of Witches is the work of a historian, and begins in suitably academic style in the Bodleian Library. Diana, who is an American witch, and also a brilliant historian, comes upon a very strange book in the library one day. By opening it, she exposes herself to a sudden onslaught of attention from large amounts of witches, vampires and demons who all want to know what's in the book - though Diana doesn't have a clue since the book's a palimpsest and the "real" contents are hidden from the reader. The most persuasive of these "Creatures" is a handsome vampire posho called Matthew Clairmont, and he claims that Diana needs protecting from the evil influences apparently massing around her. He also realises Diana is an unbelievably talented witch. But Diana is in denial about about her powers and has insisted on using human skills only to construct her brilliant career as a historian. Can Matthew convince her to use her powers for her own good, and to discover the secret of the manuscript?

Contrary to what you might think, I don't actually enjoy slagging off whole books. It can be fun to kvetch about the odd short story here and there, but analysing and reviewing an entire novel kind of feels like rolling around in horse manure. But someone's got to warn people off this shit. Harkness' book is absolute bollocks from start to finish. It's not even enjoyable trashy bollocks, just boring pretentious bollocks, which I think we'll all agree is the very worst kind of bollocks. People say you should write about what you know, but Harkness' leaden, dreary, insanely pedantic prose refutes this piece of advice utterly and at great length. There is tonnes of uninteresting historical and scientific data to wade through, and oily self-regard oozes from Harkness' pen. She does manage to fit in a few interesting facts about alchemy (a subject almost impossible to make boring) but then drowns them in pages and pages of excess wordage. In Harkness-world culture is something you use as a weapon to bludgeon the less educated into submission.

And Harkness isn't just a didactic pedant. She's also a snob and a Mary-Sue peddler of the first order. Diana is a mousey-haired historian of unparalleled brilliance, even without using her superpowers, and she's the youngest person ever to be made Queen of Everything at Oxford University! Even the college catering staff love her, a sure sign of Mary Sue-dom if ever there was one (in real life Oxford Uni menials are famously bitter and surly, I can't imagine why...)Gee, who could this paragon of supernatural womanhood possibly be based on? This is more than just "write what you know", this is literary masturbation at fever pitch, sustained for the length of a big book. After reading such a glowing account of our heroine, it comes as no surprise that Matthew is a textbook handsome vampire, and he's not one of those nasty ones that want to have sex straight away, because it's the Vampire Law that you have to take it slowly, or something.

But most importantly, after several centuries of successful investments, academic excellence and battlefield glory, Matthew is positively rolling in dough. The love our couple feel for each other pales in comparison with the real love story at the heart of this book - Harkness' love of money and privilege. There are endless detailed descriptions of stuff rich people eat, drink, wear, use for furniture, and so on until the reader just wants to take a vow of poverty and spend the rest of their life hiding from rich people in some abbey somewhere.

Harkness' wish-fulfilment splurge does have one thing going for it: it's a lot more feminist than Twilight and the many imitations Meyer's monstrosity has spawned. Matthew is allowed to be dominant, but only intermittently, and there aren't really any painful scenes of female subservience. Nor is there any slut-shaming of the kind Charlaine Harris and Laurel K Hamilton revel in. I don't think anyone is called a bitch in the entire novel, and the bad gals are treated with a certain amount of sympathy. I was a bit wary at one point when our heroine realises vampires and witches can breed, and coincidentally comes off the pill another vampire has been spiking her tea with (yeah I know), but in fact Deborah Diana manages to avoid becoming a seed-pod for a new generation of magical creatures. Instead, another pregnant witch conveniently pops up at her house, which incidentally is also shared with two reasonably ball-breaking lesbian witches. This prevented A Discovery of Witches from joining Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, the only book I've ever hated so much I actually threw it in the dustbin.

But I'm afraid feminist politics aren't enough to save this book. Because after all that hard slog, the damn thing ends on a cliffhanger. Yes, we're dealing with a trilogy, and there are two more books of this stuff. Though I didn't realise this when I bought the book, because nothing on its jacket blurb or on Harkness' website summary suggests it is anything other than a stand-alone novel. Though it could just be the result of Harkness' terrible plotting. And where are the editors? This book could've been whittled down to about a third of its length. It still wouldn't be a good book, but I would resent it a lot less. Just don't read it, okay?
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