Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Discovery of Witches - Deborah Harkness

About the book

Debut novelist Harkness has crafted a mesmerizing and addictive read, equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense--a richly inventive novel about a centuries-old vampire, a spellbound witch, and the mysterious manuscript that draws them together.

579 pages (Hardcover)
Published on: February 8, 2011
Author’s webpage


Before I start this review, I must apologize to the author. This isn’t going to be good and with the effort it takes to write a book, I feel guilty for being so negative. However, I must be honest. That’s the point of this blog – honest book reviews. So here’s my honesty regarding A Discovery of Witches and I’m sorry.

I wouldn’t normally read this kind of book. It’s not really what I enjoy, but I read it because I got it for free. That could have something to do with why I didn’t enjoy this book. I try to steer clear of books that I know I probably won’t enjoy, but I was feeling rather frivolous and figured I’d give it a shot.

A Discovery of Witches is the sort of book that makes me try very hard to avoid urban fantasy. The main character, Diana Bishop, is a historian who specializes in the study of alchemy. She’s also a witch. She happens to find a book, Ashmole 782, in the Oxford library that is spelled and she somehow unlocks the spell that allows her to view this Ashmole 782. Then, all manner of “creatures” (meaning not-humans) hone in on her in an attempt to get their hands on this tome, which evidently holds all of life’s secrets. Add a hunky, mysterious, older-than-dirt vampire to the mix and what do you have? The perfect urban fantasy trope that follows every bad urban fantasy cliché. The only difference is that Diana Bishop apparently doesn’t have a tattoo on her lower back or wear copious amounts of skin-tight leather.

The lack of a tattoo and leather pants doesn’t save A Discovery of Witches. There are so many issues with this book I don’t even know where to begin, so let me start with the biggest problem. The romance. Now, I’m not a huge fan of romance and from other reviews I’ve read I knew what I was getting into with this book, so I was in the mood to be forgiving. I let much of the romance slide, but toward the middle of the book I realized the romance was going to be a huge issue, regardless of how forgiving I was feeling. The plot takes a back seat to the longing looks, protective embraces, shivers up spines, and kisses that steal one’s breath away. Now, I realize that I might happen to be one of the least romantically inclined people on the face of the planet, but after several hundred pages of reading about two characters falling in love, you wonder if the book is about anything else, or if it’s a love story with some fantasy elements thrown in for spice. I came to the conclusion after reading 570 odd pages of A Discovery of Witches, that this book is about romance, and not just romance, but the kind of syrupy romance that makes me want to puke, with some fantasy elements thrown in to break up the monotony. Seriously, how many longing looks can a person really take?

It’s not just the romance that kills any hope of me enjoying A Discovery of Witches. The plot makes almost no sense. Diana Bishop is supposedly one of the most powerful witches ever (I bet that shocks you), but she’s so incredibly needy and seems to find making her own decisions impossible. She’s clingy and falls apart when Matthew leaves her so much so that she almost drowns herself with her witchwater. She isn’t a strong female character. She’s so dependent on others for her own thought I find myself ashamed of her being part of my gender. Don’t most people stand on their own two feet occasionally? However, at the end of the book I gave it some honest thought and, other than Diana proclaiming her undying love to a 1500 year old vampire after knowing him for three weeks, she really made no decisions on her own. No, they all came from Matthew, the man who was so protective and overbearing he freely danced into the “controlling man” territory. I’m sorry, but there is nothing romantic there. Diana gives herself to a man’s control completely and that honestly made me so upset and angry that I could hardly stomach it.

Furthermore, many of the plot points make no sense just because they don’t. For example, why on earth did Matthew and Diana go to France? The excuse is to get away from Oxford, but they really don’t do anything there but ride horses through the wilderness. Nothing is accomplished besides falling in love and getting married (and please explain to me how saying “I love you” means they are married in the eyes of the whole world). Then Matthew takes off to Oxford again, leaving Diana (wherein she falls apart because heaven forbid a woman lives without a man she’s known three weeks). What he does there remains shadowed and veiled at best. Someone breaks into a lab to get Diana’s DNA and off Diana and Matthew flee to New York. And I’m sitting here wondering what the point is of all this traveling. They could have easily skipped France all together and the story would have had absolutely no negative impact. In fact, it probably would have been a positive one because it would have reduced the length of the book quite a bit. Really, who needs to read a nearly 600 page book about people falling in love?

Basically A Discovery of Witches is a book about people falling into some sick realm of love I hope I never experience or understand. It’s a book about possession. It’s far too long for the story it contains. The plot is predictable and oddly paced where much of what happens seems absolutely unnecessary. Harkness does have potential as an author. Her writing is flowing and confident. She’s incredibly descriptive and I often found the world Diana inhabits coming to vibrant life in my mind, but that is all tempered by a book that just didn’t make any sort of sense to me. I couldn’t stand the lead characters, or respect them at all. Matthew was overbearing and controlling. Diana was a simpering woman who couldn’t stand on her own two feet. The book mirrors Twilight, another series I didn’t like at all, with some elements of The DaVinci Code thrown in for good measure, but it doesn’t master either. A Discovery of Witches is about falling in love – nearly 600 nauseating pages of it. It’s escapist fun, if you’re into that sort of thing, but I’m not. Not at all.

1/5 stars

(P.S. I have a baby. This means that I didn’t have time to edit this before I posted it due to diapers and other issues, like an outpouring of puke and etc. I posted it and will edit it later.)


  1. Yikes! It sounds like you deserve an award for finishing this book, especially with the baby to distract you . . . I hope you have better luck with the next one :)

  2. The major problem I had with this book was its advertisement as literary fantasy when it is a run of the mill UF addressed mostly to the 30's and 40's crowd rather than then the teens of Twilight so if you like paranormal romances, you will probably enjoy this one, if you detest the subgenre like myself, you will detest this one too as I did too

  3. I have to admit, I enjoyed this book. It's definitely fluff, and I often say that it's pretty much what Twilight could have been if Twilight had been marketed for adults and actually had characters with more definable personalities. And yes, for urban fantasy it is, for the most part, pretty garden-variety when it comes to the tropes it uses.

    On the other hand, aside from a soft spot for intelligent aristocratic vampires (blame my Anne Rice days for this one), part of the reason I enjoyed it was because the main character didn't wander around in tight clothes, was downright rude in many instances, and was often more focused on academia than finding a mate and looking sexy. It was a welcome change from the sheer amount of UF/PNR that I'd seen on the shelves, and I actually found Diana easier to relate to than most characters who are supposed to be my age. I admit that I had more than a couple of eyerolls at Matthew's control issues, but for what it was, I could stomach it and even enjoy it.

  4. Sarah, I COMPLETELY agree with what you (and Liviu) say. I disliked this book for the same reasons you did. What really got me, though, was that Diana is an Oxford- and Yale-educated famous historian. Her dependent love-sick behavior is totally unbelievable -- it's just not how academics behave. What baffles me is that the author herself is a well-regarded historian...

    I also got this book from the publisher and was expecting to love it. I was disappointed to have to write a bad review. I think it was the worst book I read last year.