Review: A Discovery of Witches

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.

23 thoughts on “Review: A Discovery of Witches

  1. “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! ”

    Ugh. Say no more.

  2. Wow, scathing! I hadn’t really read much one way or the other; you’re definitely turning me away from it.

    Thanks for the honest negative review; I worry that we don’t see enough of these. When I find a blog that is consistently raving I’m always concerned!

  3. Yeah, I read the first twenty pages of this and I couldn’t take any more. I feel like I should read it because Teresa from Shelf Love gave me her copy of it, and it’s not nice not to read things people have given you. But she said it wasn’t that good, so maybe it is okay if I never read it.

  4. I actually thought this was sufficiently entertaining as I was reading it, which is no small thing, given that The Historian stopped being entertaining at the halfway point and then just turned lame. I don’t disagree with you about some of the flaws in it, but they didn’t stop me from enjoying myself. I was in the mood for something long and a little silly at the time.

    And no Jenny, you don’t need to feel bad about not reading it. I gave it to you because I was seeing you and didn’t want to keep the book, and you wanted to read it.

  5. I liked this book in the first stage of the story but the book was hard to follow at times. The flow of characters personal history was broken throughout the whole story. Body of work was good and the end just kept going with no surprise. Overall, I became disappointed in the book story line and the way she left the last few chapters. I didn’t walk away thinking ” I can’t wait to by that second book by xxx”.

  6. Hang on, there’s a book in the Bodleian that no-one knows about? And just reading it means that it’s suddenly ‘visible’? Yikes.

    Anyway, your review made me think I won’t be reading this!

  7. Oh no! I had this on my wishlist, but somehow I didn’t realize that it was a vampire book… (I don’t know how that happened – I guess I skimmed enough positive reviews to put it on the wishlist but didn’t read closely enough to spoil myself? Anyways.) I appreciate the negative review to temper my expectations… I might still give it a try, but definitely from the library!

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  10. Thank you so much for this review! I tried so so hard with this book, because I felt like I really SHOULD like it. Even after the third time or so that the VAMPYR discusses, with us, the heroine’s fragile beauty (guys, she’s just like you! Only beautiful. So really not!), I stuck with it. It was in France that I finally couldn’t take it anymore, although I did amuse my husband and myself with the drippy love scenes before I returned it to the library. I am totally going to flip through your backlog.

  11. Couldn’t agree more!
    Just picked it up today, loan from a friend (thank god) after reading the first few pages, I began to tick off the author avatar wish-fulfillment mental checklist I consult whenever I begin a new book;
    Wonderfully empowered magical girl from some super-special pedigree bloodline? check. Subtly described as being stunningly beautiful or attractive despite the writers utmost efforts to portray her as “just another average woman”? Check.
    For some reason is acutely uncomfortable with how special she is? Double check.
    Has familial problems, orphaned, broken home, abandoned, child of divorce etc…check. Writer attempts to portray the POV as an “every woman” character despite clearly being exceptional (graduated from Harvard at the age of NINETEEN!, Author of two books, tenured professor who is probably only thirty-ish, mention of a “photographic memory”)?…Check, Check, Check…Then we got to the vampire-man, Matthew who is essentially a piece of cardboard “insert female fantasy here” sprawled across it in sharpie marker…and also, he has more money than God and the Rockefeller’s combined!
    If all of this wasn’t enough to make me quit reading (which I did because I’m assuming like most writers she began with her BEST writing to get us hooked) then the frustrating “Tell don’t show” method of writing did it for me. Seriously it’s like the woman is thirteen getting her first taste of prose writing…

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  15. I’m most of the way through this book and I’ve been trying to figure out just what aspect of the novel made me not like it; I think that its okay to have a love story in a good dark fantasy novel. However, Diana is supposed to be a very intelligent, well read scholar. How can she so easily dismiss the magic book because even thought she doesn’t want to get tangled up in its magic, it still has some value to her scholarship (which she abandons way too easily). I love books, I love the idea of a magic book appearing and a character being the only one who can unlock its secrets which has drawn the attention of all the supernaturals in the area. Some of the scenes early on in the library I actually enjoyed. The magical yoga practice and was kind of interesting. That she has panic issues from excess adrenaline and thus has to run, row, or do yoga to be chilled out I think is kind of cool. However, I really wanted to have the book be more about her learning who her parents were, finding out how or why to use her powers. But I do agree that the pacing of the story is way slow and I find Diana really rather a weak character considering she supposed to be the product of two very powerful witches. Also, there is no humor in here, and it would go a long way to offset all the heavy handed romance stuff. Thanks for the review.

    • It’s okay to have a love story in a dark fantasy novel when the characters feel like actual human beings. We are told things about Diana that her actions prove untrue, which makes her feel less like a person and more of a hastily-assembled construct.

      Thank you for your comment!

  16. Pingback: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness | A Good Stopping Point

  17. ACK. Why didn’t I read your review before picking this one up? I am about 40 pages in and bewildered by how boring it seems to be. Now, I am googling on the web to find out if it’s worth reading. Reviews are almost universally bad 😦

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