A Discovery of Witches

I will stand up and say it. I like good stories about vampires, witches, werewolves, daemons, faeries, and other assorted beasties. Good being the operative word there. Right now, however, it seems I can hardly walk into a bookstore without tripping over a stack of books about the monster of the moment. And, people, not all of these books are good. Popularity (or big publicity pushes) are certainly not guarantees of quality, as I learned when I read such ballyhooed but mediocre novels as The Historian¸ The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, or The Strain. So when I started seeing Deborah Harkness’s debut A Discovery of Witches appearing all over the place, I chose to ignore it. It was Steph’s praise of the book that convinced me to give it a second look, and I ended up grabbing a copy at a galley giveaway at One More Page Books. I’m pretty glad I did.

A Discovery of Witches is set in modern-day Oxford, where the brilliant and athletic Diana Bishop is studying alchemy and trying to evade her heritage as a witch. When in the course of her studies, she comes across an ancient alchemical text that is actually a palimpsest with a hidden magical text underneath, all the witches, daemons, and vampires in the area start crossing Diana’s path. Most vexing is the scientist vampire Matthew Clairmont. Naturally, the two end up falling in love and scary adventures ensue.

It’s a good set-up and a good story. When I read fantasy, one of my favorite things is watching how the author sets up the world of the novel. This world-building is, to me, the bread and butter of most speculative fiction. Harkness takes her time, letting readers gradually learn about the interactions among and within the different communities of “creatures” (a catch-all term for witches, vampires, and daemons). Her vision of these creatures isn’t all that clever or new, although I did like the scientific angle, and by the end of the novel, all the creatures are moving in some intriguing new directions. I’ve seen some complaints that the opening chapters are too slow, but I enjoyed the slow exposition. And I thought the final chapters actually moved too quickly. The last 100 pages are just one dramatic event after another, along with some new characters and the set-up for the inevitable sequel. Spreading some of those developments out across the whole novel, instead of squeezing it all in at the end would certainly have made the book feel more evenly paced.

The characters aren’t super-original, but they worked. Diana is a brilliant academic who I actually thought was smarter than me, thank heavens. (This was a major beef that I had with Deliverance Dane.) But although Diana knows her subject well, readers don’t need to know anything about alchemy or esoteric manuscripts to follow the story. Harkness finds ways to incorporate the necessary background knowledge without having her expert main character learn as she goes.

The chemistry between Diana and Matthew is at times problematic, but I ended up rooting for them. Matthew’s possessiveness and old-fashioned ways sometimes grated on me, but most of his unsettling behaviors either are understandable outcomes of being a 1500-year-old vampire or are treated as the disturbing actions that they are. I actually would have liked for Harkness to push the envelope by creating more tension in the reader’s mind regarding Matthew’s intentions. Most doubts that arise are dismissed way too quickly to be interesting.

I know some have expressed concern that Matthew has all the power in the relationship, and although I can see where that idea comes from, I saw much of Diana’s letting him lead as coming out of her relative youth. When it comes to raw power, Diana has the advantage. (It’s not unlike the Buffy and Angel dynamic, I think.) I did think Diana’s attachment to Matthew—and especially his family—leapt forward unbelievably in the final chapters. As Diana gains in magical power, she seems to lose her self-determination. But Matthew also cedes some power for the relationship. In fact, the whole arc of their relationship feels like a part of something much bigger than they are. Neither of them is entirely in control.

The writing itself never arises above the workmanlike, but that didn’t really bother me. Harkness tells the story in straightforward language, rich with detail, if lacking in stylistic flair. She probably would have done well to cut back on the descriptions of every outfit Diana put on or how each character’s hair looked. These details are nice for establishing character, but a little goes a long way. Better to spend more time on the dramatic moments, a few of which passed so quickly that you’ll miss them if you accidentally skip a line or two.

This review is coming out more negative than I anticipated, and I do feel like I’m picking nits (or maybe managing others’ expectations?). Overall, this is a fun, absorbing read filled with twists and turns. I enjoyed it. As I’ve had a day’s distance from it, I’ve found more to criticize, but this is a book to read and enjoy in the moment, not a book to pick apart. I’m not going to stand in line for the sequel, but I’ll probably read it. (There are promises of Kit Marlowe, which definitely ups the chances.)

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27 Responses to A Discovery of Witches

  1. Patty says:

    I am glad you read it … I loved this book. I truly think it is one of my all time faves.

  2. Steph says:

    I think this is a completely fair review! You bring up the ways in which the book isn’t perfect, but for all the imperfections, I still thought the book was hugely fun. I really liked the scientific angle Harkness took, and the world building, which can sometimes overwhelm or bore, was really interesting to me. I agree that the pacing gets a bit squirrely near the end, but I am one of those people who can’t wait for the sequel! For me it can’t come soon enough!

  3. I have a copy of this one but haven’t gotten to it yet. It’s not my usual fare but I figure it will be a nice change of pace.

  4. softdrink says:

    I was seriously worried in the beginning when I read the word sparkles. However, the word never reappeared and I ended up loving the book.

  5. Trisha says:

    I have this one waiting for me, but I can’t seem to get through my pile of review books! I may have to push those aside to read this one.

  6. Jenny says:

    I’m still something like 150th on the hold list for this at the library. I’m hoping it can restore my affection for vampire stories, which Stephenie Meyer and the books that came out of Twilight’s success have severely damaged. :p I figure if any vampire-story setting can win me, it’ll be Oxford.

    • Teresa says:

      I think there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy this, Jenny. I will see if I can squirrel my copy into my suitcase when I come for BEA. (I’m very good at squirreling books into my tiny suitcase.)

  7. Frances says:

    I have to admit that I have also eyed this book, and attached all sorts of “summer reading” and “in-between” better books excuses as to why I might read it. Thanks for being the brave one here! :)

    • Teresa says:

      If you want something that’s just pure fun, demanding no intense thought, this is a good choice. It doesn’t stand up to intense analysis, but I had fun reading it. Don’t know what you’d think, but I’ll be interested to see if you do try it!

  8. Steph says:

    I think that this is a completely fair review! You bring up the ways in which the book isn’t perfect, but for all the imperfections, I still thought the book was hugely fun. I really liked the scientific angle Harkness took, and the world building, which can sometimes overwhelm or bore, was really interesting to me. I agree that the pacing gets a bit squirrely near the end, but I am one of those people who can’t wait for the sequel! For me it can’t come soon enough!

    • Teresa says:

      I’m glad you think so. I did fall out of love with it a bit once I started thinking about it, but gosh, it was a fun book to read. Whatever flaws it has didn’t bother me during the reading (unlike the other books I mentioned in the review), which is a sign that Harkness is doing something right.

  9. Alex says:

    It was also Steph’s review that made me add it to my wishlist and then other bloggers made it climb in the priority list. I appreciated your nit-picking as it might be something I will also notice. Didn’t Matthew’s “possessiveness and old-fashioned ways ” feel too Edward-inspired?

    • Teresa says:

      Well, I haven’t read Twilight, so I don’t know. I sometimes think a vampire character can’t act like a possessive, know-it-all ass without getting called another “Edward.” To me, Matthew’s actions and attitudes made sense in context–and would make sense for most vampire characters, especially the really old ones. His age (1500 years!) means he knows a lot of stuff that Diana doesn’t, even though he’s clearly impressed with her knowledge. And he’s spent hundreds upon hundreds of years in a patriarchal world, so his habits in that arena would be hard to break.

  10. Chelsea says:

    I have to admit, between The Historian, Twilight, and a slew of other really honestly just plain bad fantasy-creature fiction, I’m just a little too wary to give another one a try. I feel as though I’m becoming embittered with the genre, or at least the genre in its current manifestation. I loved this review, though, and am considering breaking my ban to give it a try!

    • Teresa says:

      I’m worn down by the genre too, which is why I wait to see some good reviews (like Steph’s) before I even consider a monster book.

      Another really fresh take on vampires that I didn’t mention here is The Radleys by Matt Haig. I think it’s a stronger book than this one, actually, but altogether different–more of a suburban comedy/action novel than a romance.

  11. Kathleen says:

    Interesting! I had the opportunity to review this book, but I turned it down because of its length; I didn’t think I could meet the deadline. It looked like something I’d probably enjoy though, so I might pick it up eventually.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s a fun one! Perhaps now you could wait until the next book is out so you won’t have to wait out the cliffhanger ending.

  12. Kerry says:

    I wrote a similar review, but more snarky. I agree, it was a diverting read but quite flawed but I’m interested in at least hearing what happens next.

    • Teresa says:

      Your review made me laugh. I had to give it credit for being entertaining and for being better than the other books of this type I’ve read in recent years.

  13. I have just reviewed this over on Random and having checked the Amazon reviews as well, it appears that though most of us think this is a good book, with reservations, it is not a great one, nor a page turner which I was expecting.

    It needed a tough editor to get to work on it and would have been better some 150 pages less in my humble, but it has caught my imagination enough so that I know I will read the second one when it arrives.

    • Teresa says:

      Good with reservations is about right. For me, it was a page-turner, and the flaws didn’t bother me as I was reading, only once I was done and thought about it. I think it would have been brilliant had the pacing been more even.

  14. sakura says:

    I thought it was a very enjoyable book although I did have a few things to grumble about (mainly Diana and Matthew’s relationship). But what I really enjoyed was all the history of science that Harkness injected into the story and I’m really looking forward to meeting Kit Marlowe too:)

  15. Pingback: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness | Iris on Books

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