A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
For some reason, I was really excited about A Discovery of Witches. You see, The Historian is one of my literary nemesises—a bloated, poorly structured, and cripplingly slow piece of work that barely deigns to interact with the vampires that are its main selling point. So, in A Discovery of Witches, another long novel that focuses on its heroine discovering a book and a world she never knew (well, in this case, wanted to face), I hoped to find some sort of redemption or at least revenge for The Historian. I even quieted my concerns when I saw a blurb from Danielle Trussoni, author of Angelology (while not as bad as The Historian, it’s not exactly worth a read), on the back cover. Surely, I thought, her own writing has nothing to do with the fact that she apparently found it gripping from page one, right?.
…guys, now I’m really worried The Book of Fires is going to suck because Jane Borodale wrote a blurb for this.
A Discovery of Witches finds Diana Bishop, historian, requesting a book only known as Ashmore 782 from the Bodleian Library in Oxford. When she opens the book, she realizes that it’s magical—and quickly notes it and sends it back, wanting to have nothing to do with her magical heritage. But the manuscript has been missing for centuries and long searched for by the supernatural community, composed of witches, vampires, and daemons, and her discovery has made her a person of interest, especially to enigmatic vampire Matthew Clairmont. And Diana’s own significant magical gifts won’t stay suppressed forever…
Guys, I really wish there was another way to put this, but this is Twilight for adults. There are plenty of novels where humans and vampires hook up and plenty of novels where an insecure heroine gets the man of her dreams. But the romance in A Discovery of Witches between Diana and Matthew (because of course they hook up) is so gooey and syrupy that it makes me want to wash my hands. Not only is it true love, it’s a destined love that will change the whole world—complete with a possible magical baby never before seen on Earth! There’s a cheerful, droll family of vampires with more money than God! He must go through the trial of drinking her delicious, delicious blood! He doesn’t want her to become a vampire, though she’s considering it! She’s drawn to him even though she should be repulsed by his devastatingly handsome looks and tragic past! Give it a dollop of fetishizing the French (…eh, we’ll take it! We are French), a supposedly deeper subplot that only services the romance, and voila! Twilight for adults. At least Twilight has horrifying implications as well as hilariously bad, well, everything. Man. Remember when being a vampire had drawbacks, like being eternally damned? Those were the days.
And at least Meyer understands basic plot structure. Harkness falls into the common and supremely irritating pitfall of having the first novel in a trilogy not function as a novel unto itself. Diana discovers Ashmore 782, hooks up with Matthew, and the rest of the book basically follows them falling in love, occasionally being pursued that ultimately provides more excuses to fall in love, and… not much else. They make astoundingly little progress towards recovering Ashmore 782; Diana barely lifts a finger to try and recall the text. The focus here is on the romance to the expense of almost everything else. In a way, it reminded me of The Secret of the Pink Carnation; it’s a romance novel being marketed as something else entirely. And perhaps that would work if the characters were interesting, but they’re not particularly. Diana’s main characteristic is being stubborn, and otherwise she feels like a heroine in a Lifetime film—coldly calculated to pander towards a particular demographic. (Joke stolen from the Twilight RiffTrax. It’s very Twilight in here, is what I’m saying.) She has messy hair! She does yoga! She’s just like you! And Matthew isn’t much better, being pretty much flatly perfect and apparently managing to have known everyone interesting in history ever, which certain cripples the believability.
So if the plot and the characters fail, we can always fall back on the worldbuilding? Not really. You see, Harkness suffers from Worldbuilder’s Disease—a common ailment that I myself suffer from, as does pretty much anyone who writes speculative fiction. The trick is to not fall prey to the impulse to tell the reader everything about this cool new world you’ve cooked up. Harkness does not do this. While Diana’s willful ignorance allows for some exposition, it doesn’t allow for the sheer avalanche that comes the reader’s way. Harkness constantly pulls the reader out of the already slow story to point out new and interesting details. When we meet Marcus, Matthew’s vampire “son”, we are treated to his life’s history in a sidebar that could easily be excised from the novel. We rarely learn anything organically or through character dialogue; if a small detail is mentioned, it’s elaborated on immediately in the narration. It’s distracting and, to be totally honest, annoying. The worldbuilding itself isn’t too bad—although I’m unsure about the arbitrary nature of having only witches, vampires, and daemons be real—and a mildly scientific approach to vampires is always appreciated. But it’s nothing dazzling (…no pun intended) and it’s certainly not worth picking this up for.
Bottom line: A Discovery of Witches is, ultimately, Twilight for adults on an almost alarming one to one basis. The plot structure is crippled by the lack of any resolution in this installment of the trilogy, the overbearing romance is so syrupy you’ll want to wash your hands, and the worldbuilding’s motto appears to be “Why show when you can tell”? Definitely a miss.
I rented this book from the public library.