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.)