Edition 4: Book Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
Reviewed by Mysti Parker
I have an unspoken rule when it comes to reading, and that is to reserve judgment on a book until I’ve reached the end. There are exceptions if a story is so atrocious I cannot stomach another page. Generally, though, the rule applies to books that give me mixed feelings from early on and leave me wondering (and worrying) how I’ll feel at the end. Such was the case with the first book of Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy.
As I perused Amazon to locate my latest review book for SQ Mag, I stumbled upon A Discovery of Witches. It looked pretty popular according to the many reviews (though I don’t read reviews myself before I write my own). The blurb sounded exciting, but I hesitated for a bit. The story involved a romance between a vampire and a witch, and I’ve never been that interested in vampire literature, especially vampire romance.
It’s not that I have anything against vampires in fiction, but I’ve never quite understood the lure of a romantic attachment with a vampire. I just can’t fully get into the mind of a woman who falls for a man who could kill her (or vice versa) if he or she gets a little hungry. Maybe it’s my rejection of the old ‘women fall for bad boys’ syndrome. I’ve never been that fond of bad boys myself.
Needless to say, I started the book despite my reservations. It opens with well-renowned American alchemy historian, Dr. Diana Bishop, calling up a manuscript vaguely entitled ‘Ashmole 782’ from Oxford’s Bodleian Library. As soon as she touches it, she knows the book is under some sort of spell. Why? Because she’s a witch, descended from the famous Bishops, a long line of American witches. Diana, however, has denied her heritage since the age of seven, when her parents were horrifically killed in Africa. She tries to ignore all the signs, even when the book sighs at her touch and seems to relax its cover to allow her access. Beautiful alchemical illustrations and unfamiliar language flow across the pages as if they are alive. She makes a few notes about it on her computer and quickly sends ‘Ashmole 782’ back to the stacks, telling herself that she’s gleaned everything she could from it. In reality, the book’s effects have rattled her, and despite Diana’s best efforts, she cannot forget that experience.
Enter Matthew Clairmont, a 1,500-year-old vampire, whom she meets shortly after that in the very same library. She’s instantly intrigued and fearful of him, having only heard negative tales of vampires from her witchy aunts. What seems like a coincidental meeting soon spirals into a tricky romance and a never-ending stream of ‘creatures’—witches, daemons, and vampires—who follow Diana’s every move. ‘Ashmole 782’ is clearly not just an enchanted book. It’s something highly sought by all three non-human groups. Besides some speculation about its contents, Diana and Matthew don’t fully understand the book’s significance. Yet, as they try to elude Diana’s pursuers, they fall in love, an action in itself that is cause for war among the three creature factions.
Before it even reached such conflict, however, A Discovery of Witches was a slow discovery at best. It took me a good ten chapters to get fully invested in the characters. Though the writing is very well crafted, there were too many ‘toothbrush’ moments—too much daily life for my tastes. I didn’t feel the need to exercise, eat, and shower so often with Diana. Luckily, I had resolved to finish what I’d started, and I’m glad I did. When the plot finally picked up the pace, I couldn’t put the book down.
At that point, the characters took on a life of their own. Even secondary characters like Matthew’s ‘mother’ (his maker) and Diana’s aunts, became endearing. The plot wove its way into something truly magical, and by the end of the book, I had no doubt that Matthew and Diana were meant to be together.
There were still moments that gave me pause, such as a very Twilightish reference to Matthew’s glow. He came really close to sparkling. I might have had to stop reading if he’d actually reached that stage. In fact, in the early chapters, I called the book ‘a scholarly version of Twilight’. I’m glad I didn’t give up on it.
Diana herself seemed to morph from strong, independent, intelligent woman, to a pure damsel with mush-for-brains about halfway through. Yet, I kept reading and discovered there was a lot more to her development than simple vampire obsession, and without giving anything away, she proved capable of merging her two worlds (academic and magical) by the end.
Another thing that bothered me was that creature attributes seemed watered-down, as though the author was trying so hard to create her own unique versions of them , that she fell to the opposite end of the spectrum. All three creature species could pass as human. Witches enjoyed the best variety, with each one exhibiting a unique combination of powers. Harkness’ vampires were still as dangerous as their counterparts. But, they walk in the sunlight, rarely sleep, possess only ‘sharp’ teeth, not true fangs, can supplement their blood diet with some raw meats and a few select foods, and are very partial to drinking red wine. Daemons are portrayed merely as eccentric geniuses prone to madness. But, despite the watered-down depictions, these elements soon blended into the atmosphere so well that they weren’t a problem anymore.
Other issues were long descriptions of setting, mundane activity, and alchemical references and research that slowed pacing and left me skimming through parts. And I’m still not quite certain how Diana (or any fictional heroine) can fall for an undead man who’s killed scores of people for hunger, rage, and revenge, and who watches her sleep (yes, he does that too). Even with my reservations and prejudices, I found myself eager to read the next book in the series by the time it was over.
And that, in my book, is the mark of a good story. I’d recommend A Discovery of Witches to any paranormal fantasy fan, particularly if you love vampire romances that are geared toward a mature audience.
A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness
Publisher: Penguin Group, 2011
Mysti Parker is a full time wife, mother of three, and a writer. Her first novel, A Ranger’s Tale was published in January, 2011 by Melange Books, and the second in the fantasy romance series, Serenya’s Song, was published in April 2012. She is also the proud writer of Unwritten, a blog recently voted #3 for eCollegeFinder’s Top Writing Blogs award.