Review: A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness

Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches begins with an interesting premise: reluctant witch Diana Bishop discovers an ancient book of great power in a library and sends it back. It turns out witches, vampires and daemons have been after that book for centuries, each with their own ideas about what the book contains. Together with tall, handsome vampire Matthew Clairmont, Diana tries to escape all the baddies after her (and the book) and find out more about this book. They fall in love, which unfortunately violates a centuries old treaty that vampires, witches and daemons must not mingle. Forbidden love, a mysterious ancient text and a reluctant witch who, it turns out, has the potential to be the most powerful witch in history — sounds exciting, eh? The beginning certainly was.

Unfortunately, the rest the book felt like the first six hundred pages of a three thousand page novel — full of minor threads that either get resolved or not yet, with no major story arc for the book itself. As a result, a lot of the major dramatic scenes didn’t have the impact it could have. Once, Diana is tortured by a baddie wanting to force her to reveal her powers. She survives and is praised for her bravery. Unfortunately, it comes too early in the novel to feel climactic, and as Diana herself didn’t know what her powers were at this point, her resistance seemed more unavoidable than heroic.

Several major baddies show up, all of whom are given only a few chapters before disappearing, ostensibly to reappear in a later book. The major baddie, who provided what I assumed was the climax, came almost literally out of nowhere. This could’ve been a wonderful surprise twist, if only this particular baddie had been present, even as a shadowy, unknown behind the scenes puppeteer, throughout, but that wasn’t the case. I can only assume Harkness is saving the actual climax for a later book.

Discovery is bogged down by minutiae. Harkness may have been so fascinated about vampire eating habits (they eat nuts!) that she wanted to devote practically an entire chapter to Diana serving Matthew a meal. Halfway through, when I realized the conversation was never going to move beyond Matthew praising Diana’s attention to detail and Diana’s fascination that Matthew can eat solid food, I stopped caring completely. So imagine my horror when only a few pages after this meal, Matthew decides it’s his turn to feed Diana, and to educate her about all the wines he serves. While it must be amazing to taste centuries old wine, by what felt like the tenth bottle described in loving detail, I wanted to swear off wine forever.

Minor quibble, but while I love having a heroine with a great appetite (finally!), Diana eats more toast in one book than Miss Marple drinks tea in all of Christie. That’s how it seemed anyway, from Matthew serving her tea and toast to Diana wondering if they had any more butter. I love foodie lit (Goldy Schulz! Guido Brunetti! Hannah Gruen!), but there’s a reason none of those authors spent this many pages on toast.

Diana spends a huge chunk of the novel in Matthew’s mother’s castle, where she waits around for Matthew and finds out lots about the vampires’ back stories. Way too many pages of nothing exciting happening, and way too much boring information, to the point when, after a few chapters of action, when a vampire I actually liked said “This is my tale to tell,” I had to turn off my Kindle (much less satisfying than slamming a book shut).

This book does have one of the most unintentionally hilarious scenes I’ve read in a while. When Matthew leaves Diana in the castle to go pursue baddies, Diana cries so hard she starts leaking water everywhere and creates a literal flood. Maybe it’s just because it’s such a lame reason to be that devastated, but that made me laugh. It was only afterward, when Matthew’s mother said Diana was the first witch in centuries powerful enough to command witchwater that way (Diana actually became water) and Diana admitted her fear that she’d disappear completely (think Wicked Witch of the West) that I realized the scene was meant to be solemn.

So why did I finish the book? Like I said, the premise was promising, and the parts where the characters talk about the book are interesting. There is also the possibility of a revolution and a war among the witches, vampires and daemons, which sounds exciting. So I do want to find out how this whole story ends.

The next book promises to be about Diana training to use her powers properly. Personally, I’d like to find out how many books Harkness plans to have in this series, so I can wait for the final one and read the last few chapters to see how the war turns out and what the ancient book actually contains. Till then, I leave the toast eating and vampire reminiscing to other readers.

1 thought on “Review: A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness

  1. Pingback: Review | Angelopolis, Danielle Trussoni | Literary Treats

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