Review: A Discovery of Witches

I don’t really have too much to say about A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. I read it for my book club, and it was alright, if a little clichéd. My first reaction: it’s Twilight for a slightly older audience. There are vampires, witches, and daemons. A magical book brings about a forbidden romance. It’s fluffy and it’s all been done before, but to her credit, Harkness writes well and infuses the novel with a lot of interesting history.

The main character, Diana Bishop, is a witch, though she attempts to keep magic out of her life, as her parents — two powerful witches themselves — were killed because of their magical abilities. Diana is an American professor studying in England, where she has access to more manuscripts for her research. One such manuscript just so happens to be enchanted, and once word spreads that Diana has uncovered the long-lost text, all the other magical creatures want to get their hands on it. Diana is overwhelmed by the sudden attention she receives from other witches, daemons, and vampires, and has no idea what to do about the book or the magical focus she can no longer evade.

Enter Matthew Clairmont, vampire. This is where the novel veers into well-trodden territory. Matthew is — of course — brilliant and beautiful, and irresistible to Diana, despite her almost constant irritation with him. Sound familiar? Yep. Thought you might recognize that. The love story aspect of this novel is predictable and unexciting. The witch and the vampire are attracted to each other, but they can’t be together. Diana’s scent is intoxicating to Matthew. He runs to Scotland rather than risk staying and drinking her blood. He comes back and, despite the obstacles and difficulties, pursues a relationship with her. Their relationship is fraught with sexual tension, but Matthew refuses to consummate it. (Seriously… swap out a few names and locations, and this is exactly the basic plot of Twilight. Ugh.)

Though the romance is horribly trite, Harkness adds a fresh element to the story in terms of the historical elements and the mystery shrouding the magical manuscript. Harkness has done a great deal of historical research, and has written two nonfiction history books before this novel. Her knowledge and expertise shine through in the novel, and in my opinion, were the most interesting aspects of the storyline.

Now, my biggest problem with the novel, as I mentioned, was the eerie similarity to Twilight. My second-biggest problem: Diana herself. I get that she isn’t secure in using her powers due to the violent deaths of her mother and father. There’s even a plot point that explains the weakness of her magic further. I accept all that. What I’m not so keen on is how prosaic she is for the first half of the novel, and then — because Matthew is soooo irresistible — she turns into a hyper-sexual woman. Both characterizations feel shallow. There are attempts at making her seem more complex and well-rounded, but they unfortunately fall rather flat. Throughout the novel, I found myself annoyed with Diana. I wanted her to dress better, act more confidently, and in general be the type of woman that would in fact go rowing on the river for an hour before hitting the books. The type of woman that had made a name for herself in academia. Harkness details Diana’s habits and professional life, but comes up short when actually giving her a personality with the traits that would lead to her accomplishments and hobbies.

The end of the novel takes a significant turn for the better when the romance is put on the back burner, and adventure and mystery take center stage. More characters enter the scene, and I happened to like them a great deal (for the most part). Unfortunately for me, the novel ends after only a few of these improved chapters; A Discovery of Witches is the first of a trilogy. I have yet to decide if I’ll read the subsequent novels, though the premise of the second novel sounds interesting (Time travel! Elizabethan England! Alchemy!). We’ll see what my time permits, and whether my inclinations lead me back in this direction.

(Sorry for the long delays in between posts. I’ll try to do better!)

Happy reading!

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