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Princess Alethea's Magical Elixir
  Book Reviews by Alethea Kontis
December 2011

Title: Discover of Witches
Author: Deborah Harkness
EAN: 9780670022410

It's that time of year! The air turns crisp and cool, you dig out all your boxes of winter clothes and buy whipped cream for the weekend hot cocoa. The jackets get thicker . . . and so do the books. Just as the film offerings turn from mindless summer blockbusters to Oscar-worthy performances, so too do the tomes I yearn to dig into before a crackling fire. Do you guys do this as well? Surely it can't be just me.

I've been hanging onto Deborah Harkness's Discovery of Witches, saving it to read when I was in a better mood to settle down and digest a thinking-person's book. I'm very glad I did. I enjoyed it immensely over the two weeks it took me to finish it. It is not so much epic as it is a discussive piece, covering the subjects of evolution, DNA markers, historical events, alchemy, and illuminated manuscripts.

Yes, the main character is a witch -- Diana Bishop. Her chapters are written in first person. She is one of the last of the Bishop witches, infamous in Salem back in the day. But while Diana comes with a supreme pedigree, she eschews magic, preferring to be a slave to academia, first at Yale and now at Oxford. She is a historian whose concentration is the history of science, alchemy in particular. One day, during her usual trip to the Bodleian Library, she requests -- and receives -- a very powerful, ancient, missing, and highly-sought-after manuscript . . . that she promptly returns to the stacks.

Diana is suddenly the subject of much scrutiny, as day after day the library begins to fill with the trifecta of non-human creatures -- witches, demons, and vampires -- all intent on getting their own hands on both this magnificent artifact and Diana herself. The most interested of all is a 1500-year-old vampire named Matthew Clairmont.

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Okay. If you're anything like me, I know what you're thinking right now: Alethea, please don't tell me that this is another girl-falls-in-true-love-with-a-vampire story. Trust me, there was a lot of eye rolling when I was first introduced to this character, and I hoped beyond hope that Matthew Clairborne would not turn out to be the romantic lead. Unfortunately for us, he does. You must accept it if you want to read this book, because it's integral to the plot.

Thankfully, the fact that it is integral to the plot -- coupled with this being a book that expects you to have a modicum of intelligence about academia, history, and science -- helps soften the blow. I enjoyed every page of this book, happy to meander around through almost 600 pages of text. I was disappointed when it was finished, but happy to know (though once again I had to go straight to the author's website for confirmation) that there would be a sequel. Apparently, there will also be a movie, and a tote bag, and probably a line of designer clothing . . . but that's the way these things go nowadays.

Believe me when I tell you that if you are sick of vampires, you will still enjoy this book. Make sure you have a decent stash of Constant Comment or Lady Grey or Red Rose, because you will be craving tea throughout the duration of this book. In many ways, Discovery of Witches is the perfect historical romance novel, for a modern audience steeped in paranormal literature.

Title: Micro
Author: Michael Crichton & Richard Preston
EAN: 9780060873028

Michael Crichton used to have this issue with having his books in his publisher's catalogue. It was like if they printed it and made it official, he'd feel too much pressure and miss his deadline. But, like clockwork, every two years HarperCollins would send sell-sheets for the new Michael Crichton book. I remember getting the last one. The book was as yet untitled. As rumors were flying around like Spaghetti Monsters about the author's health, I was thrilled that he'd been able to finish it before his ship sailed for the Great Beyond.

Unfortunately, Michael Crichton hadn't been able to finish that last book. It floated back and forth for a very long time, finally ending up n the hands of Richard Preston, bestselling science author of The Hot Zone. I was fine with this development. Preston should at the very least be able to carry the science through the narrative, and the rest was just basic Action-Adventure 101, right?

You'd think I'd have learned from Ian Malcolm about complex systems. *sigh*

The novel opens up with an unfinished introduction by Crichton, on the juxtaposition of the current "Save the Environment" movement being run by kids who never played outside a day in their lives. The "NOT FINISHED" line in the signature tore at my heart strings. I wish I'd been able to read the rest of that intro.

Of course, I also wish I'd been able to read the rest of the book as Crichton had meant it.

What's the book about? It's "Honey, I Shrunk the Scientists" set in Hawaii . . . and that's pretty much all you need to know. What none of us will ever know, however, is whose fault it is that this book had so many flaws in it.

I don't mean flaws with the science -- I'm by no means an entomologist, how the heck would I know? -- I just mean flaws with the basic storytelling. Flaws so big that I wondered if Harper even used the same copyeditor. I mean, come on . . . someone with an IQ higher than 100 actually said "PIN number"? Seriously?

I'd have to go back and re-read another Crichton to see if he continually referred to the characters by both their first and last names through the entirety of the book. I get it once or twice, but having it continually mentioned distanced the characters from the reader considerably. And there was definitely a bit of condescension in the way some of the science was explained to the hoi polloi. I always thought of Crichton as a teacher, not a teller . . . even if his lectures got a bit tedious at times. (I was one of the masochists who actually enjoyed the 100-page intro to quantum physics at the beginning of Timeline.)


I'm glad I read Micro. It was a fast read that would have (as mentioned in the previous review) worked better as a summer blockbuster. If the movie rights have been sold (I'd be surprised if they hadn't), it will make a fantastic film. If you're an SF completist . . . well, buy this in paperback or check it out from the library and spend your heard-earned money on Robert J. Sawyer instead.

Read more by Alethea Kontis

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