” The manuscript inside the next box was smaller than the last, but it contained interesting sketches of alchemical apparatus and snippets of chemical procedures that read like some unholy combination of Joy of Cooking and a poisoner’s notebook”
This review is only slightly late (I read it in late Dec 2011). For which I blame the Physicist for absconding to Lancaster with the book and leaving it there.
Diana Bishop is a precocious historian studying alchemy at Oxford – or rather, studying alchemical texts. When she requests a slender volume from the stacks and it reacts to her suppressed magical abilities, she sends it back in high denial. Unfortunately, a number of other magical creatures were watching that particular manuscript and are now most interested in Diana’s discovery of it; not least among them, the taciturn, high-achieving Matthew Clairmont.
That plot summary only really covers the first 200 or so pages, which were the bit that I really enjoyed. Diana is a great protagonist over that period – she’s fiercely independent and academic, considerate without being what one might term “lovely”, tired of being babied by her aunts and absolutely determined to make her way in the world with her fearsome intellect rather than with her witchly powers. Her efforts to learn to control her witchery are really quite amusing and sweet, and Matthew provides an excellent foil/love interest/general other character.
Once Diana and Matthew leave Oxford, it got rather Twilight-y (not that I’ve read Twilight, so I’m using that as shorthand for laying on the paranormal romance with a trowel and stretching the plot parameters to near breaking point with no justification at all. Except I’m pretty sure that my pre-conceptions about Twilight are spot on). Apart for some amusing character development and romance in the south of France, and some cute writing regarding Matthew’s mother, Diana’s difficult aunts and possessed house, suddenly Harkness seemed to have realised she could get a trilogy out of this if she threw enough plot diversions in, and off we went. There’s an unexpected murder, learning to time travel, a nasty torture sequence in a pit, inter-species collaboration and quite a lot of grumpy people.
So really, I would like to rate this 9/10 for the time that they’re in Oxford, and 3/10 thereafter.
The writing is very cute at times:
“Disappointed, I turned my attention from my dead family to my undead husband”
“Sarah’s worst suspicions about vampires would be confirmed if she knew they drove Jaguars while she drove a broken-down Honda Civic that had oxidized to the brownish lavender of roasted eggplant”
and Harkness has clearly spent a lot of time in Oxford, as I was only able to pick one hole in her description (I don’t think you can turn right onto the High St from St Aldates in a private car after an early morning rowing outing – I think you can only do it in the very middle of the night, otherwise bus lane restrictions apply). While Verity may dispute Harkness’ replication of the Duke Humfrey library, I thought she did a wonderful job of evoking the spirit of one of my favourite cities in the world.
I’m still not a fan of these paranormal stories, and I don’t think I’ll be seeking out the next in the series, but if it’s your genre, you should give this one a try.