Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Urban Meets the Fictional

The third series up for review is the All Souls trilogy.  Actually, I've only read the first book, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness.  The second book is out on shelves now.  My cousin lent this book to my mom last August, as a portion of it is set just down the road from Syracuse in a small town called Madison.  Familiarity breeds interest in this case.  After she finished it, my mom raved about it to me and my sister.  As I was still absorbed in other readings, my sister got first crack at it.  Much like my mom, she raved about it, and so it was my turn.  That was six months ago.

Sometimes when I get handed a book, I'll suffer from a sense of mulishness, mentally insisting that a book couldn't be as good as someone else says, as though only I can pick out a good book.  (I admit to seeing this same attitude in my daughter when I try to get her to taste new things).  The irony of this attitude is that some of my favorite books have come from others.  At least half of my collection is made up of books that were gifts.  Even so, I'll get muleheaded at first, and procrastinate, letting a book languish in my room for months at a time; my daughter will do the same to her plate, letting the offending food sit to the side until nothing else is left.  Finally I'll convince myself to read it; after six months, I finally got around to reading A Discovery of Witches, and all it took was a trip to the beach for some dedicated reading time. 

The story opens in Oxford, England, and travels to France, finally landing in upstate New York.  Dr. Diana Bishop is a scholar of some renown, an authority on books of alchemy and the transitional period of history between mystical beliefs and scientific fact.  Dr. Bishop is also a witch, the last in a long line of a very powerful bloodline.  Quite by accident, through her research on a perfectly mundane topic, she comes across an enchanted alchemical manuscript.  Fearful of her birthright and the secrets locked within its pages, she returns it to the university library.  Unfortunately for her, many other creatures have been searching for that manuscript, and they will do whatever it takes to get it back.

Intrigued by rumors, Matthew Clairmont decides to observe Diana Bishop himself, to determine if she is as powerful as gossip says, and if there is any truth to her finding the last manuscript.  Being a scholar and vampire, Matthew has his own reasons for wanting it.  An unlikely friendship begins as the two of them try to understand the other, creatures of two very different classes.  As more creatures begin to show up at Oxford University, and the witches begin to threaten Diana, the two of them are pushed together, and are forced to flee to France.  Once there, Diana and Matthew realize they are falling in love, and all the deadly consequences that holds.

This is an odd book, in that when I try to dissect it for critical analysis, I am left holding sand.  The individual parts are not strong enough to stand on their own, and yet the completed product is undeniably good.  I see this same frustration from other reviewers.  Some give it a bad review, because the individual parts are lacking.  Others took the long view and said that the entire story is worthwhile, without analyzing what made it so good.  I'm going to try to walk the middle path, and then give my conclusion.

As to the lead character, Diana Bishop, she is a host of contradictions.  Other characters continually describe her as brave, but for three quarters of the book, she's having panic attacks and passing  out.  Admittedly, at the very end of the book we learn why this is, but it does make the heroine a bit harder to see as a strong lead.  There is one science while they are in France that shows her to be brave.  Otherwise, she is a bit like an ostrich, sticking her head in the sand at the slightest hint of magic.

Diana's romance with Matthew is another puzzle piece made out of sand.  For one thing, as romances go, this one seems emotionally tame.  The descriptions to me lack a certain amount of passion.  I'm not asking for pornographic descriptions, but the level of romance described in the story is... paltry.  The words and gestures that are supposed to be showing the reader the blossoming love are empty, and to my mind, some can be construed as merely platonic.  Also, because of media hype, those who do not know much about the paranormal-urban romance genre are trying to compare this to the Twilight series.  That is a faulty comparison at best.  "There's a vampire involved in a romantic way in this piece of fictional literature.  Clearly we can make a comparison!"  No, not really.  The story, the audience, the romance, itself; none of these things have enough similarities to make a comparison.  It'd be like comparing a platypus to a hummingbird because they both lay eggs.

This is a fiction story.  It is set in a modern (mostly) urban setting.  It discusses magic and creatures we associate with folklore.  There is romance as two characters fall in love, but this is not necessarily central to the plot, more like a supporting subplot.  The characters are defined to a point, but not enough to guess where the plot will take them.  In all honesty, this strikes me as the sort of story told at the start of a game (roleplaying game specifically, though I am sure video games do it too).  This book is like character creation in a way.  The characters have defined backstory, one that will entangle them in the GM's plot/mystery-to-be-solved.  But the real story itself is only just beginning.  We get to watch the whole thing unfold, see the characters develop into epic personalities that will be able to do all those amazing things the plot says are on the horizon.  I think that is why it is so hard to critique on individual elements.  Right now, the individual elements are unmolded, still soft.  It's the equivalent of trying to dissect oublek (cornstarch and water makes a fun experiment).  So that leaves it as a matter of faith; you have to trust that the promise given here of an amazing story is honest, and that it is worth reading.  And now that the second book is out, I can see if the promise is authorized.

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