Old-fashioned fantasy with a dollop of respectability

Book review: "A Discovery of Witches," by Deborah Harkness. Viking, $28.95.

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Ah, guilty pleasures -- the panicked addiction to "Gossip Girl," the secret taste for Twinkies, the Glamour tucked into The Economist.

I must admit, although I was embarrassed to open a book titled "A Discovery of Witches," I also was thrilled. Love, betrayal and magical creatures practicing yoga to Elton John songs? Sign me up!

The new novel, which quickly climbed best-seller lists, is written by University of Southern California professor Deborah Harkness, who, when not studying the history of science, writes a blog about affordable wine.

She draws on her background in this novel to create an oddly compelling narrative about alchemy, the mystique of Oxford University and the drama of academia as well as the obligatory bits about spells and seduction.

The book is meant to be the first in a trilogy. In the first installment, Diana Bishop, a brilliant Yale professor who happens to be a witch -- but avoids magic on principal -- unintentionally recalls a long-missing, bewitched manuscript. She sends it back into the Oxford stacks, but her brethren start to stalk her, believing the tome holds essential secrets about magical creatures and their origins.

Creeping over Diana's shoulder in the library is, of course, a fabulously handsome vampire geneticist, Matthew Clairmont. (To answer your pressing question, he is both a geneticist who is a vampire and a scientist who studies vampire DNA.)

The romance that ensues is predictable. Apparently all strong-willed women need strong-willed men to harness them, and Matthew becomes Diana's hunter, protector, captor and lover.

Blech!

But as powerful magic surges within her, their bond unhinges a dangerous, segregated world, and the book turns from a soppy tale into an evolutionary puzzle.

That's just the beginning!

Novels about the supernatural have become a fat genre in recent years, with highs ("Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell") and unapologetic lows ("Twilight").

It is difficult to decide where to place "A Discovery of Witches." At times it feels downright trashy, laced with the occasional guffaw-inducing line. (" 'You taste of honey,' he murmured. 'Honey -- and hope.' ") In the first 20 pages, our heroine's skin tingles so often that readers will wonder if she has a dermatological condition.

Publicists for "A Discovery of Witches" acted defensively, billing the novel as much smarter than "Twilight," a popular teenage vampire series, by focusing on its high-culture tidbits and literary allusions.

Ms. Harkness is indeed too much of a scholar to let the book slip into the bin. Just when it starts to get raunchy, a smoldering scene between Diana and Matthew becomes a bedside talk about the history of courtship. Charming, if extremely weird.

It is a testament to the enthralling narrative that over time, most of the novel's quirks dissolve, and the reader is sucked into a rollicking mystery. The author evokes a lush world, and even prods at themes: the hunt, the battle between desire and fear, the wedding of opposites.

Ultimately, though, the book is an escape. Diana's life with Matthew is one of horses, castles, private jets and endless time to jog along rivers. The balance of the universe may hang on her shoulders, but she will never worry about how to pay for lunch.

Ms. Harkness' attempts to mirror magical and human differences also are unconvincing.

That's a pity. Some aggressive editing and a little social relevance could elevate "A Discovery of Witches" from guilty to pure pleasure. But for now, I'll file it with my soap operas, fashion magazines and squishy packaged treats. Delicious, it is.


Vivian Nereim: vnereim@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1413.


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