Fantasy Book Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

3/5 Stars

A Discovery of Witches was a pleasant surprise for me. I didn’t really know what to expect, coming into it, which is probably a good thing. I hate having a book built up in my mind before I start, and the inevitable disappointment after imagining that it will be different than it is. Deborah Harkness’ debut novel came up as a book recommendation based on other books I’ve read. I gave the blurb a cursory glance, decided it had all the makings for a nice fluffy read next time my brain was too tired for “real” books, and tossed it into my virtual shopping cart. “Magic Realism” is a kind of cotton candy genre for me. They are light and sweet and disappear too quickly. And when I’m finished I have that twinge of guilt that I shouldn’t have gone there, and I worry about rotting some important bits of my head.

But A Discovery of Witches did not end up being the fluffy read I imagined it to be. Harkness has built a surprisingly complex world in which three supernatural species—witches, daemons, and vampires—coexist, mostly unnoticed, with humans. She works a vast amount of history, science, and religion into this world and blends the lines between them quite seamlessly. A large portion of the novel is set in Oxford, particularly the Bodleian Library, where an enchanted text from the 1500’s finds its way into the hands of our heroine—Dr. Diana Bishop is a Scientific Historian—as she is researching her latest paper on alchemical poetry. Bishop, though she is a witch by birth, has long since denied her magical heritage and wants nothing to do with the shimmering book before her. She promptly sends it back to the stacks, and tries to forget about it. Which, of course, is never going to work. Her denial of the book sends a shockwave into the supernatural community, and suddenly Diana Bishop is thrust into the very world she has been avoiding for her entire life.

Now I didn’t go to school anywhere near as awesome as Oxford, but Harkness had me yearning for those early years of university. Reading it makes me reconsider my decision not to pursue a career in education. Oddly, the most “magical” aspects of this book for me were Harkness’ simple descriptions of that great, historical campus and the vast libraries, coffee shops, and academic fuss-budgets that are at the heart of any college or university.

Even better, is the fact that Harkness has peppered the text with beautiful little excerpts of poetry from some of my favourite writers—and some I’m not familiar with—which she almost seems to have written the text around. If you are in any way a lit geek, this book holds more than a few thrills. Harkness also uses folklore and mythology to her advantage. Myth enriches her story when she decides to embrace it, but she’s not afraid to deconstruct it intelligently when it doesn’t suit her purpose.

My only complaint about A Discovery of Witches is that it leans a little more heavily on the romantic subplots than runs to my taste. The star-crossed lovers theme has never been my thing. When the lovers in question are a witch and a vampire, my cheese-o-meter starts flashing. Their love, however idealistic and sickeningly sweet it is, is actually integral to the main plot, though. And so I will forgive it. But please, Harkness, if you’re going to make me sit through chapter after chapter of goo-goo eyes and endless descriptions of what vampire breath smells like (if it’s not blood, I’m not interested) you’d better make with the fucky-fucky. Seriously. If Diana and Matthew don’t have wild monkey sex in the first three chapters of the sequel I’m going to be writing a strongly worded letter.

Okay, that’s not my only complaint. The book moves a little too slowly at times. Diana seems to spend an inordinate amount of time denying the fact that she is a witch given the fact that she has been shooting sparks out of her fingers, reading people minds, and calling on torrents of wind and water every time she has an emotional breakdown. It felt a little bit like Diana’s acceptance of her situation was being dragged out so that the rest of the plot could catch up.

Also, Matthew is annoying. And his bleeding heart routine kinda made me want to stake him. In real life people lose friends, lovers, children, family, to any number of things: war, illness, car accidents, vengeful lovers, wild animal attacks, whatever. Death happens. For the most part, we expect a person to move on from loss within a reasonable amount of time. Of course you won’t forget the people you love, but if you lose your partner in your twenties and are still emotionally crippled by the loss when you’re eighty, there’s probably something wrong with you. Now, imagine you’re a two thousand year old vampire. Imagine that you lost your wife and child to some epidemic in the year 535BC. Shitty, right? Sure. But I’m pretty sure you’ve gotten over it by the time 2012 rolls around. Just sayin’.

Anyways, I prefer my vampires to be bloodthirsty assholes, I guess. And although Matthew spends a decent amount of time being an asshole it’s usually because he’s trying to hide his tender soul from the rest of the world. It’s all a little too cutesy.

All in all, I’m giving A Discovery of Witches 3 stars. The world building on its own deserves at least 4.5, but the characters fall a little flat for me. Or the dynamic between the two MC’s did. I realize that a lot of this has to do with personal expectations and tastes, so I’m not going to weigh characterization as heavily as I would if the plot and setting had been mediocre. I’m going to give Harkness the benefit of the doubt and assume Diana and Matthew’s relationship will gain a little more depth in the next book. Or at least hope their hormones get as much play time as their hearts did in book one.

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2 thoughts on “Fantasy Book Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

  1. The setting does sound like it would be worth the read. Perhaps a writer like Harkness, who has the ability to create this kind of world for their readers, needs a better editor. It could be they have misjudged their intended audience or tried to reach a wider audience by combining two very different genres. Too bad. But I think I’ll still read it.

    1. Ya, Harkness needed an editor big time. If this is the edited version, I shudder to think of what the first draft was like! I think we get a full description of every meal Diana eats for the span of the novel. But she does a lot really well, too. That level of detail is great sometimes. But it’s not necessary everywhere. Like vampire breath. We don’t need to know what vampire breath smells like. And certainly not every time he breathes.

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