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Book Review

Vampire-witch pairing isn’t quite spellbinding

By Chuck Leddy
February 17, 2011

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Deborah Harkness’s sure-to-be a blockbuster Gothic romance novel is a Dan-Brown-worthy blend of horror-movie kitsch, New Age cheesiness, and romance-novel saccharine, as it explores the challenges of love between a perky witch and a handsome vampire. Think “Twilight’’ for adults.

As in all good romances, the obstacles facing witch Diana and vampire Matthew are internal and external. Harkness shows these two academics (she’s a professor at Yale; he’s at Oxford) meeting in the library, then slowly falling in love during yoga classes, discussions about evolution, and over bottles of expensive wine (Matthew, being 1,500 years old, is a fine wine collector). The problem? Matthew likes feeding on witch blood while Diana is an ambivalent witch who would prefer to seem “normal’’ (alas, the whole “vampire boyfriend’’ thing doesn’t exactly help).

Harkness’s narrative also revolves around a mysterious manuscript filled with alchemical symbolism that holds the secrets to the origins of vampires, witches, and demons. It’s like Darwin’s “Origin of the Species’’ but of the dark side. Not surprisingly, it turns out that all want to unlock its secrets. Diana has the magical key to these mysteries, but doesn’t want to use it. Matthew wants this power too, and seems willing to kill Diana to get it, but something monstrously unexpected happens along the way: He falls for her and vice versa.

Harkness keeps putting up hurdles to this cross-creature love. The 1,500-year-old vampire naturally has old-fashioned notions about the role of women, believing that Diana should defer to him; she, of course, is strong willed and a feminist. And if that’s not difficulty enough, a Confederation of creatures long ago decreed that cross-creature romances were forbidden. The Confederation thus dispatches assassins to enforce the “no cross-creature romance’’ rule. Can’t we all just get along?

Harkness sets up the drama well. Matthew must fight his desire to drink Diana’s blood — pretty heavy baggage for any such relationship. As Matthew assures one of his buddies, “I will not give in to this craving for her blood.’’ But Matthew has fallen in love with women before (he’s been around the park a couple of times, after all) and been unable to keep his blood-hungry teeth off their necks. As Harkness explores the quotidian themes of modern vampire-witch relationships (how to share decision-making; will he put the toilet seat up; will she burn down the house with witch fire?), she also details the risks, such as the vampire’s old girlfriend returning from the dead and trying to kill the vampire’s new gal pal. As Shakespeare once put it, “The course of true love never did run smooth.’’

Harkness succeeds for more than half the novel in raising the stakes, but in the second half the narrative runs dry of both blood and magic. We get cornball couple visits to the vampire’s ancient castle, where the nervous witch meets Matthew’s mother. The vampire visits the witch’s haunted house and family, too. Harkness’s prose is adequate but far from bewitching: “ ‘What spell have you put on me?’ He searched my face. ‘It’s not simply your eyes — though they do make it impossible for me to think straight — or the fact that you smell like honey. . . . It’s your fearlessness.’ ’’ In the end, Matthew encourages Diana to embrace her magic: “[T]ake a big step into the mysterious, Diana. The magic and wonder that was always your birthright is waiting for you.’’ What witch could resist a vampire this enchantingly empowering? And while Harkness’s book isn’t exactly spellbinding from start to finish or a bloodcurdling page-turner that will keep castle dwellers up all night, it does qualify as schlocky fun, light reading for vampire-loving creatures everywhere.

Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at chuckleddy@comcast.net.

A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES

By Deborah Harkness

Viking, 592 pp., $28.95