Does this sound familiar? A woman falls in love with a moody, chiseled vampire with a great wardrobe and a quick temper. Of course it does, and comparisons between Twilight and Deborah Harkness’ extraordinarily fun debut — the first in a planned trilogy — are unavoidable. But A Discovery of Witches, a thoroughly grown-up novel packed with gorgeous historical detail, has a gutsy, brainy heroine to match: Diana Bishop, a renowned scholar of 17th-century chemistry and a descendant of accomplished witches. Diana has spent most of her life resisting the magic within her. The power she’s long denied swirls to the forefront, however, when she opens a bewitched manuscript in Oxford’s famous Bodleian Library. Suddenly every vampire, witch, and daemon — yes, they walk among us; we humans are just oblivious to their presence — is up in her grill, hungry for the secrets she’s unknowingly unlocked. It’s 1,500-year-old vampire Matthew who makes the biggest impression. Diana falls madly for him, breaking every rule about interspecies dating. They’re a formidable team, which is lucky because Diana’s roiling power has unleashed all kinds of crazy.
Harkness writes with thrilling gusto about the magical world. Whether she’s describing a yoga class for witches, daemons, and vampires or Diana’s benignly haunted house, it’s a treat to suspend disbelief. Alas, there’s a bit of bloat to the book. In a particularly saggy patch, Diana and Matthew loll around a French castle, checking e-mail and tracing each other’s collarbones. But just when I began to wonder whether A Discovery of Witches was nerdy-cute rather than truly magical, the plot accelerated. As the mysteries started to unravel, the pages turned faster, almost as if on their own. By the most satisfying end, Harkness had made me a believer. B+