Review: A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

In the opening pages of A Discovery of Witches Yale history professor Diana Bishop, on a summer research trip to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, encounters a 17th-century alchemical manuscript sealed by magic. Descended from a long line of powerful witches, Diana can feel the powerful spell at work as soon as she touches the book.

Despite her surprise at receiving an enchanted volume from the Bodleian’s stacks, her trepidation at what might happen if she opens it, and her unwillingness to use her inborn magical ability, Diana doesn’t simply return the book to the call desk. No, that would be too easy. Despite the possibility that the book, once opened, may be trouble, Diana opens it anyway–and yes, trouble (and the plot) ensues.

I don’t know how many times I picked A Discovery of Witches up, In the months following its February release, looked at it–and put it back, unbought. On the surface, it looks like the kind of novel I’d eat up with a spoon. Academic setting? Check. Historical mystery? Check. Magic existing in a contemporary setting, yet unseen and unrecognized by normal people? Check. Over 400 pages? Check. It’s like a recipe for my favorite flavor of literary crack. But despite all that, I didn’t cave in and buy it until early June, and once I got it home it sat unread for nearly two months.

I mean, look–I snapped up Lev Grossman’s The Magicians last year without a flicker of hesitation. I didn’t even bother to finish reading the dust jacket flap; I just knew immediately that it was a novel that could have been custom-written to my tastes (and it exceeded all my expectations). I’m even counting down the days (three!) until the release of the sequel, The Magician King. I also picked up Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf (and reviewed it last week), despite not being a “dog person”–I simply had an odd hunch that it would be worth reading, followed it, and was rewarded with a howling good time.

I’ve got this odd, intuitive book-sense, in other words. It’s an uncanny knack for picking up on which books will be good and which will…not. And I really should have listened to that book-sense each time I picked up A Discovery of Witches and debated whether to buy it, because, like Diana Bishop, I seemed to know just by touching the cover that it was going to be–well, okay, not trouble. Just a massive goddamned disappointment. Continue reading

Review: The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan

I admit it–I almost dismissed The Last Werewolf out of hand. While I’ve read my share of vampire fiction, werewolves were never my thing, and I’d never read a werewolf book that was any damned good. And yes, I’ll go ahead and blame Twilight while I’m at it, just because I can: Twilight tainted werewolves.

But hey, I was at Costco, where the pickings are slim. Cheapskates can’t be choosers. So I bought it anyway.

This should be said, right from the start: The Last Werewolf is not a horror novel. It is not fantasy. It is not a paranormal romance. Oh, sure, it’s fantastic, and horrific, and even romantic. But it’s not genre fiction by any means–which is why I loved it. (Readers expecting it to conform to genre norms might not, complaining that it’s “too literary.”)

So: Jacob (“Jake”) Marlowe is a 201-year-old English werewolf. As the novel opens, another full moon has just passed, and so has the only other remaining werewolf–a German named Wolfgang, beheaded by an international occult law enforcement agency. Wolfgang’s demise leaves Jake to be the last of his kind (or, as he puts it, he’s now All wolf and no gang). Jake himself is slated for extermination during the next full moon, courtesy of the same agency.

There’s no surprise in that; he knows he’s been saved for last because he ate the head werewolf hunter’s father 40 years earlier. But after 167 lonely, loveless years as a monster? He’s ready. Bring on the silver bullets, baby. Continue reading