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Originally published Thursday, February 17, 2011 at 7:02 PM

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Book review

'A Discovery of Witches': at Oxford University, unrest among the supernatural set

University of Southern California history professor Deborah Harkness has written a scintillating debut novel, "A Discovery of Witches," an Oxford University-set fantasy that creates a world of witches, vampires and preternatural geniuses called daemons at war among themselves. Harkness will discuss her book Tuesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Deborah Harkness

The author of "A Discovery of Witches" will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or

"Witches and vampires don't mix, Dr. Bishop."

Peter Knox, a tweed-clad wizard, issues this warning to the heroine of Deborah Harkness's first novel, "A Discovery of Witches" (Viking, 579 pp., $28.95). Dr. Diana Bishop, a professor of history like her creator, has fallen in love with a vampire. And she just happens to be a witch.

In the world within Harkness's book, witches, vampires and preternatural geniuses called daemons live secretly among humans. That sort of setup is familiar in the urban fantasy genre, but "Discovery" could more easily be labeled an academic fantasy: It begins in Oxford University's Bodleian Library and proceeds through various castles, ruins and well-preserved landmarks (Harkness, history professor at the University of Southern California, has written nonfiction, including "The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution").

Instead of hard-boiled detectives its main characters are scholars and researchers. Matthew Clairmont, the vampiric object of Bishop's affection, does drink... wine and is quite the connoisseur, having in 1,500 years acquired cellars full of rare and costly vintages. He also collects books, including Bibles, and though he doesn't much care for the sun, direct exposure won't kill him.

What might kill Clairmont — and Bishop as well — are the efforts of "The Congregation," a nine-member ruling clique overseeing all supernatural beings. Knox is a representative.

The Congregation despises Bishop and Clairmont because of their love. Such a pairing is an abomination: Witches, daemons and vampires are believed to be three separate species. Bishop's superlative magical powers, long-suppressed but awakening with her love and her unique ability to read an enchanted manuscript thought to hold the key to creating these species, make the couple an even more powerful lure for the novel's villains.

As they flee their enemies and seek knowledge only partially revealed by the damaged manuscript, the witch and vampire find strength in one another's differences.

Parallels between Bishop and Clairmont's situation and that of those who defied the U.S.'s overturned anti-miscegenation laws will arouse many readers' sympathies.

And just as I do, they may prefer Clairmont's scientifically based top-predator type of vampire to the sort who sparkle or turn into bats and dissolve when sprinkled with holy water.

However, having known a few witches personally, I had a harder time accepting Harkness's version of them. Bishop is the latest in a line of magical creatures who with only a little training can call up winds and travel through time as easily as you or I might whistle a tune or climb a tree.

"Discovery's" daemons, the third magical species, seem extraneous to its cosmology; perhaps they'll play a larger part in sequels, or perhaps their presence is necessary to illustrate some alchemical allegory.

These allegories are evident throughout the novel: The 40 days of Bishop and Clairmont's initial encounter are the alchemical equivalent of "nigredo," the period when an old state of being dies in giving way to a new one; a centuries-old occult manuscript's illumination of "the Alchemical Wedding" clearly depicts the pair's features.

Nothing seems capable of stemming the recent influx of vampire fiction, and this book isn't trying to stop the flood, nor to rise miles above it.

But though the quality of "Discovery's" prose remains no more than clear and serviceable, its erudite references to the leather-bound boards of incunabulae and secret ingredients in medieval inks make it a welcome relief. Using such elegant touches Harkness imbues Bishop and Clairmont's romantic adventure with an odd charm, a sweet joy in the life of the mind.

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