Book Review: A Discovery of Witches

It’s not hard to imagine how the publishers felt when they happened upon Deborah Harkness’ book (however that mysterious kind of thing happens, I honestly have no idea). Well, I suppose it could have happened two ways. Either exasperation–more vampires, really? Or glee–smart vampires, finally!

Well, kind of.

A Discovery of Witches is a complicated first novel in the All Souls Trilogy. It begins by a reluctant witch and science historian, Diana Bishop, finding an enchanted manuscript during her work on ancient alchemical texts. When the manuscript surfaces it draws witches, daemons and vampires to begin lurking around Diana. The text is wanted by all, purported to hold the secrets of their evolution, destruction and powers. Chief among those intrigued by the text (and by Diana herself) is Matthew, a highly esteemed scientific researcher and geneticist who also happens to be a 1500 year old vamp.

I can’t help but liken A Discovery of Witches to…well, Twilight. I just can’t help it.  Possessive male vampire? Check. Girl that doesn’t seem special but just IS (rather, the narrative never seems to say why she is so special besides the blasé SHE HAS TONS OF POWER!…but…why? Maybe that’s forthcoming…)? Check. Well written..ch–wait, what?

Therein lies the primary–and most important–difference between A Discovery of Witches and Twilight. ADOW is well written. There are many lyrical passages, cozy settings, a whimsical, secrets-in-the-dusty-library atmosphere. The world-within-a-world structure (a palimpsest, if you will) is clearly drawn and evoked. The characters are (mostly) likeable. Harkness deftly weaves in scientific theory, fantasy genre elements, historic minutia. There are funny moments, tender moments, romantic moments. The plot clips nicely along. When I turned the last page of the book I wanted to know more, and I’ll be back for the sequel.

But…Here are my quibbles.

One, I’m sick and tired of the possessive vampire schtick. In the beginning of the book, Matthew, our vampire-hero-anti-hero, is an interesting, if aloof, character. In fact, I wasn’t clear that he was the romantic hero of the novel for a bit. I liked that. I felt that it gave me a little room to get to know more about the guy. But as soon as he falls for Diana he becomes…you know. Edwardian, and not in the historical sense. Harkness, the author, does a credible job of explaining why this is but it still doesn’t alleviate my irritation. Because as soon as that happens…

The heroine gets much less interesting. It never fails. In a novel where you have a possessive hero, the heroine is either defiant and stupid, or submissive and meek. Somehow, Diana manages to be both. I’m not sure how it happens, but it does. Diana goes from becoming kind of interesting to dull, very fast. The plot seems to be happening to her, instead of by her own agency.

The only other problem I had was the pacing. Towards the end the action became disjointed. Plot points seemed to happen for the sole purpose of moving the story along, rather than generating from the characters. The Matthew and Diana in the beginning of the book didn’t match the Matthew and Diana in the end, which was a real shame. I liked M & D in the beginning.

I’ll read the next book. The premise has a lot of potential. The writing is smart and whimsical. The weaving in of genetics, evolution, biology, ecology and history is fascinating and well done. I’m happy to see the fantasy genre being taken seriously for what it is–a medium on which many different genres can come out and play.

Rating: 3.5/5

Publisher: Penguin

Cost: $9.79 at Costco

Read With: Strong black tea (cream and sugar, please) and a scone. With clotted cream. Mmm.

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