The Dog Doesn’t Die

Book reviews & random thoughts

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

This book featured gallons of tea, buckets of tea, maybe even an overflowing river of tea. Maybe that was the problem – maybe the characters would have been more interesting had they been coffee drinkers. Or if Diana, the wimpy, non-practicing-witch protagonist, had worn something other than black leggings and baggy blue sweaters. And when did it become necessary for every story involving a witch to also include vampires? At least they’re not zombies. I can’t get into zombies at all.

Am I sounding cranky about this book? I actually liked it, for the most part, and just recently recommended it to a friend. It’s not great literature, but it’s good escapism, a classic beach book if you will. I’ll read the sequel. But LET’S JUST STOP WITH THE VAMPIRES ALREADY, OKAY??? I AM SICK AND TIRED OF VAMPIRES!!! I get it, they’re sexy and powerful and mysterious and all that. They’re also over-exposed, and I don’t mean in terms of sunlight. Plus, I like witch books. Can we have more witches without vampires? Please? Look at J. K. Rowling – she did quite well writing a series about witches and wizards, with only the briefest mention of vampires, probably just to shut up the questions about them. It can be done, in other words, and quite successfully.

So I liked A Discovery of Witches, even though it dragged in spots, especially in the middle, which needed to be cut deeply and ruthlessly by an editor with strong opinions about pacing. My favorite characters were Emily (Diana’s Aunt Sarah’s partner) and the Bishop family’s house, which does not talk but is more expressive than 3/4 of the characters who do. I also liked Sophie (the Luna Lovegood equivalent), who comes in very late and is very cute and perceptive. Diana Bishop, though? Eh. Vampire/love-interest Matthew Clairmont? Eh. Matt’s mom, Ysabeau? Eh. The one-dimensional villains? Eh. The ending, which is also the set-up for the next book? Excellent!

So what am I nattering about, anyway? Here’s the plot: Diana Bishop, professor at Yale and last in a long line of extraordinary witches, tries not to use witchcraft for reasons that don’t quite make sense but are eventually spelled out. While doing research at Oxford, she comes across a document that every “creature” – witch, vampire, daemon – seems to know about but her, and they all want it. Since she’s the only one who’s been able to call the document forth, they want her to try again, but she has sent it back to the stacks and there it remains. Only Matthew, Oxford professor and filthy rich vampire, seems to care more about Diana than about what she can do for him. They fall in love, which is expressly forbidden by some agreement made generations ago among the three types of creatures: they won’t date outside of their own kind, if you will. Violating the agreement pisses off both the witches and the vampires – not so much the daemons, who tend to be loose cannons – and unites them against Diana and Matthew. Diana drinks a lot of tea, acts like a wimp, sleeps constantly, fails to make the most basic decisions, and wears black leggings and baggy blue sweaters on most occasions. Eventually I wanted to throttle her, but then the book got interesting again, Diana started communing with ghosts, the mystery of her parents’ gruesome death became a factor, her inability to harness her extraordinary witchcraft powers was explained, and she and Matthew left Ysabeau’s deathly dull French mansion for Sarah and Emily’s delightfully opinionated house in New York. And then the book ended with a set-up for a sequel, which I plan to read despite all the damned vampires that will dilute the presence of my beloved witches.

Speaking of vampires, here’s a question: how did they manage to ride horses before the invention of the automobile? I’ve seen at least a couple of books in which they did, this being one of them. Some vampires fly, which would get around that question. But for those that don’t, how do they avoid chomping down on their live transportation when they go into a feeding frenzy? If the humans they care about are in danger, why aren’t their horses?

Anyway, no gruesome animal stuff happens in this book. Matthew has an entire stable of horses at Ysabeau’s place in France, and they’re fine.

October 24, 2011 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, death of a parent, families, fantasy, horses, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

This is the most derivative book I have ever read — and I loved it! I envision Lev Grossman sitting around on the floor, mildly wacked out from something or other, telling a friend “Rowling should have made Hogwarts a college and had them all go to Narnia after they graduated.” And the friend tells him to quit babbling and write it, and then he does. It probably didn’t happen that way, but however it came about, The Magicians was a brilliant mash-up of Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Narnia, The Secret History, and Less Than Zero, with some of Grossman’s own ideas smushed into the whole concoction. (I came close to adding the “satire” tag, by the way. But the book is too earnest for that.)

So … Quinten Coldwater, a glum but slightly hopeful high school math genius, abruptly finds himself taking an exam for a college he’d never imagined — a magic college called Brakebills, located somewhere in New York. Q, as his friends call him, is also obsessed with the Narnia-like stories of several siblings visiting a land called Fillory. After completing Brakebills’ five-year program, he discovers that he has the equivalent of a master’s degree in uselessness and joins his fellow young magicians in New York for drunken dissipation. But then one of his college BFFs finds the way into Fillory, which actually exists. So Q and seven others head there, finding that it is a dark and hellish place rather than the charming fantasy land they’d read about.

Q isn’t a joyful, upbeat protagonist. Sometimes I wondered what the hell he was whining about. For example, he didn’t understand his parents, and their “failure” to live up to some unspoken, impossible ideal was never explained. They lived their lives, appeared to care about and support him, and for that Q convinced himself he’d had an unhappy childhood. Whatever. He’s not someone most of us would want to hang out with. On the other hand, he held himself to extremely high standards, and his struggle to meet those standards made him fascinating.

As for other characters, the “Ron” to Q’s “Harry” was a chain-smoking, gay, alcoholic genius/magician, and the shy-but-talented “Hermione” was one of the best young female characters I’ve read in a long time. However, I think the direct comparisons are unfair to Grossman. The blurb on the back of the paperback describes The Magicians as “one of the most daring and inventive works of literary fantasy in years.” And I have to agree. Grossman left himself lots of space for at least one sequel, and I can’t wait to read it. I strongly recommend this book.

As for animals, there were no animal characters in the story and really no bad incidents involving animals. Fireflies, spiders, and mice don’t fare too well in some of the practice sessions, though the magicians try to, and often do, restore them to life. So this book is SAFE for animal lovers. Enjoy!

July 10, 2010 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment