Thoughts on: A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

When historian Diana Bishop opens an alchemical manuscript in the Bodleian Library, it’s an unwelcome intrusion of magic into her carefully ordered life. Though Diana is a witch of impeccable lineage, the violent death of her parents while she was still a child convinced her that human fear is more potent than any witchcraft. Now Diana has unwittingly exposed herself to a world she’s kept at bay for years; one of powerful witches, creative, destructive daemons and long-lived vampires.

It’s the book I was meant to fall in love with. But you guys KNOW how it irks me when books are compared to others (who wants to be the next ‘anything’, anyway? Don’t they want to set the standard, be the original, rather than be compared to the standard, be a derivative of the original?). Aside from sympathy for the author, publishers who overhype books run the risk of disappointing readers. Readers like me, who was intrigued when the book was described as ‘sparking a bidding war’ between publishing houses: a mix of ‘Twilight, Harry Potter and The Historian‘ (let it be known that I was more intrigued by The Historian comparison than the Twilight/Harry Potter ones).

So what did I think when I had A Discovery of Witches in my hot little hands? Alas, it just wasn’t meant to be.

Firstly, my encounter with the book’s protagonist left me cold. Diana is a super-smart historian, a blonde, and a witch. For reasons still unknown to me, Diana is not happy with her witchy powers and prefers not to use them at all. Oh, except to speed up the onerous chore of doing the weekly laundry. Diana is also supposedly super-busy, but if you judge her from the book’s contents, much of her time is spent fainting, complaining, dithering about, and doing the odd yoga sesh. And as the story plods into baffling territory of Diana’s discovery that she is an UBER-witch, she alternates between acts of ‘bravery’ (read: dominatrix) and frailty. I had trouble with Diana’s choices, which seemed more to reflect where the plot was going than any thought to character consistency.
Matthew, the vampire love interest, is also a strange mix of baffling and boring. I couldn’t get past the fact that he’s been alive for 1500 years, but appears to be socially inept. He emanates the typical Edward Cullen-style possessiveness, but I didn’t buy the two’s supposed chemistry-at-first-sight… perhaps because I wasn’t sure exactly what was realistically attractive about either of them. And I guess that’s one of the really big issues I had with the book – I felt the reader was being told what to feel, rather than seeing it and feeling it as a result. By the time Diana was whisked off to Matthew’s estate in Paris I couldn’t stomach another Mills and Boon cliche.

To be fair to the book, readers who like elaborate descriptions may appreciate this story, as it’s lavishly detailed every step of the way… but for me the detail was lacklustre – we learn about everything Matthew cooks Diana for dinner, and vice versa. Apparently Diana loves rowing, yoga, contemplations over cups of tea and using her PhD status to get a great desk at the library, because there are repetitive scenes which do little to further the plot. And there’s not much other action going on, that’s for sure.

As a disclaimer: if the book had been an enjoyable escapist read, I would have written a more forgiving review. But I feel it’s important to be true to my opinion, and for that reason I have to admit to rolling my eyes often at the cheesy dialogue, becoming increasingly annoyed with the slow pacing and itching to slap the characters into life.

It will come as no surprise that reading A Discovery of Witches left me increasingly frustrated and, ultimately, dissatisfied. It is a physically hefty book with a feather-light story and a blatant escapist mentality. Yes, it might have been improved by further editing, and yes, perhaps Book 2 will remedy some of the issues I had with Book 1 (they’re banking on a trilogy), but I’m not sure that it will generate the “reader infatuation” publishers are hoping for.

Disclosure: Received for review.

Year of Publication: 2011.

Number of Pages: 592.

Book Challenges: 2011 Fantasy Reading Challenge; Chunkster Challenge 2011.

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Aimee Burton

Aimee Burton is a lawyer-in-training who still dreams of befriending unicorns. This blog will be her escape from reality, and hopefully it'll inspire her to finish writing that fantasy trilogy she's always promising her friends is "almost halfway" done.

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on: A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness”

  1. Thanks for the review I looked at this today and hmmm now I wont be in a hurry to read it !! Saying that I dont take all book reviews as gossiple and do often try for myself but I like honesty in book reviews and can see this one may just not be my kinda book 😉
    Kat via facebook

  2. Good review – and I agree. I couldn’t finish it either. I decided to flick to the end to see if my 13 year old granddaughter might enjoy it, but I think she would find it as boring as I did.

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