**Warning: HERE BE SPOILERS**
(I really am sorry for how spoilery this review is but I felt as if I wasn’t giving the book justice unless I went into specifics.)
My library only had one copy of the Kindle edition of A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES and I had to wait so long for it, I actually forgot the plot and why I wanted to read it. I almost didn’t check it out when my hold was filled. I’m glad I did, though. I found myself glued to my Kindle for two days.
This is Deborah Harkness’ first fiction novel. Her other two books are nonfiction works focused on history. Harkness brings her knowledge and love of history to the novel, enthralling the reader by her rich descriptions of illuminated manuscripts, Oxford, and the inner workings of academia and libraries that only an insider would know.
A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES takes place in a world where there are humans, vampires, witches, and daemons (those gifted with great genius and who skirt along the edge of madness). It is mostly told from the first person point of view of Diana Bishop, an American in Oxford who has absorbed British culture to the point that she drinks hot tea like a fish. She’s a professor of history, doing research on alchemical texts. Here’s the kicker: her family back home in New York state are the Bishops, a long line of witches that began with Bridget Bishop of Salem fame. But Diana has hated magic ever since she was a child when her parents were murdered (supposedly) by humans who feared them.
One day, Diana calls up a manuscript (Ashmole 782) that sends her witchy senses a-tingling. The manuscript is special, with another text written underneath the illustrations. She knows immediately that this isn’t because the writer of the manuscript reused paper. It’s magic. Diana, firm in her decision to not use magic or be involved in it unless she absolutely has to, returns it to the library’s vault. But there are those who desperately want the text.
Enter Matthew Clairmont. Mysterious. Handsome. Rich (really, really, brain-numbingly rich). Intelligent. And a vampire. He wants the manuscript, too. But he’s also drawn to Diana, which is not good because it is against a covenant made centuries ago: the species shall not mix. Period. End of story. But when Diana and Matthew say “screw you” to the rules, all hell breaks loose. Oh, yeah, and Ashmole 782 needs finding because it vanished after Diana sent it back. Oh, and there are several possibilities as to why the other witches, vampires, and daemons want to get their hands on it.
I love plots that are complicated and many layered. The main reason why I couldn’t put the book down was because I couldn’t figure out where Harkness was going. So much was happening and, at some points, I altogether forgot about the Ashmole. On the one hand, this is great because it keeps the reader in the dark. It gives a sense of impending danger, making you feel fear and confusion with the character because you know about as much as she does. On the other hand, I wonder if maybe Harkness was suffering from Rowling Syndrome: an over-arching plot so massive and convoluted, you need a diagram and spelunking gear in order to keep track of it all. It might be a little too early to tell (this novel is a first in a trilogy) but I wonder if Harkness collapsed a little under the epic she was trying to tell.
Twilight for Adults
There were many similarities to the TWILIGHT series. For the most part, that wasn’t a problem because she took the similarities and made them her own. Where the author of TWILIGHT wrote an angst-filled story about teenage love filled with references to the Mormon faith, Harkness wrote a more adult novel layered with references drawn from the Bible, history, alchemical texts, and ancient poetry. There is very little angst because there’s simply no room for it in the massive plot.
(Spoiler) But, there was one moment where I groaned and rolled my eyes. Diana feeds a vampire her blood to the point of near-death. The vampire manages to stop in time, however, and she recovers. But the places where she was bitten are cold and highly sensitive, like a vampire’s skin. The exact same thing happens to Bella in TWILIGHT. I really, really hope Harkness has a reason for this that will be revealed later (unless she’s acknowledging how much TWILIGHT inspired her and that was her nod to the series).
Diana and Matthew’s romance is integral to the plot but I wouldn’t say it’s a romance novel. There’s just so much else going on.
I liked the pace of their romance at first but I feel like Harkness rushed it near the end. This is a trilogy. I don’t see why she couldn’t have written the plot in such a way that they don’t get together until the second or third book. I always feel like that makes for more tension and a more believable development. However, I do like that Matthew insists that they not consummate until more time has passed. It’s very “Edward” but, in this, it fits because it’s not so much a heavy-handed lesson in chastity (as it is in TWILIGHT) but Matthew acknowledging that they really don’t know each other.
There’s the sense that Diana is going to have problems with Matthew’s bloodlust and his past. I like this idea and I hope Harkness follows through. Too many novels about vampires nowadays gloss over the fact that these creatures kill to live. I really look forward to Harkness’ further exploration of that theme (she does explore it some in this novel).
There was so much filler, I kind of wonder where the editor was. On the one hand, some of the filler was good in that it allowed for some character and relationship development. But, on the other hand, when we got down to the last third of the book, I just felt like it was dragging on for too long. However, in that last third, there’s a sentient house throwing temper tantrums, so it wasn’t all that bad. I think maybe I was just wanting her to get back to the Ashmole.
Is Diana a Mary Sue?
Urban Dictionary defines a Mary Sue as a character that is perfect, an ideal match to another character, and who is the most powerful thing walking. Diana fits this, but I’m not convinced this is necessarily a bad thing in this case. (Spoiler coming)
Diana may be the mother of a new species–or a new race. It’s kind of unclear at points whether or not the three creatures (vampire, witch, and daemon) are different races or different species. But it kind of makes sense for her to have all this potential that she can pass on to future generations. One of the themes of the novel is evolution, after all.
Four Things I Really Didn’t Like (Spoilers)
1. Through the whole book, we keep hearing about how Michael is a big badass. He’s the head of a chivalric order. He’s 1500 years old. For dozens of pages, I kept waiting for him to get into a fight so I could see what all the hype was about. Then he gets his butt handed to him by a vamp that’s not even a quarter his age. It was a rather obvious attempt to get Diana to show off some of her power and for her to save him rather than him save her.
2. The ending. I won’t say what happens but if Harkness had not written the last chapter, there would have been so much more tension.
3. Diana’s aunt is a lesbian in a committed relationship. I’m not against having homosexual characters in novels. However, one of the themes of the book is taboo relationships and I cringed a little because it seemed as if Harkness had created a lesbian aunt in order to make a point. I felt it was contrived. I also disliked the missed opportunity. The Bishop line is dying out. It would have been really, really interesting if someone–anyone–had accused Sarah Bishop of betraying the family by not at least trying to have a child even if she didn’t marry a man. If Diana had never turned back to her powers, then the family’s magic would have been lost forever. I think it would have made a good subplot if that accusation or idea had been introduced.
4. Diana nearly cries herself into a pool of water (called witchwater) when Matthew leaves her and she starts to believe he doesn’t love her. Granted, they had forged a mystical bond by that point but still–crying herself nearly into oblivion? Really? What point did that serve? The description itself was fascinating and I liked the idea but it just felt overly dramatic.
What I Hope
Harkness’ writing is beautiful. She certainly has a way with words and word-building that I really admire. However, I just think she needs to work on her plotting and I hope her editor is working with her on that. I also hope that this whole series doesn’t culminate in the opposing sides having a long talk, wherein they settle their differences and everyone falls in love with whatever spawn Diana will have (and I’m sure she’s going to have one eventually). This happened in BREAKING DAWN and I was so pissed, I actually threw the book across the room. (I can’t afford to do that with this series because I’m reading the books on my Kindle Fire, which I really don’t want to break.)
All-in-all, a mixed review. I did enjoy the book, though the editor within saw lots of room for improvement. Or, I at least saw how I would have done things different more clearly than in other books I’ve read recently. This definitely feels like a debut piece, which is why I haven’t written off the trilogy as a whole or Harkness as an author. Paolini’s ERAGON was obviously a first work, read like a fifteen year old wrote it, and you could tell he was heavily inspired by Tolkien and Star Wars. However, his writing matured as his editors worked with him and as he wrote more. I have high hopes that the same will happen with Harkness.
I highly recommend that you try the book. Check it out from a library or get it from a friend. It’s one of those books you’re either going to love or going to hate, so it’d probably be best to give it a test run before slapping down cash for it.
(P.S. They’re making a movie out of this book. Personally, I’m lobbying for Tom Hiddleston to either play the part of Matthew Clairmont or his son Marcus. But maybe I’m just biased.)