Recent Reads: “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness

Discovery of Witches cover

A Discovery of Witches
Deborah Harkness
Fantasy / Paranormal / Romance

Synopsis:

When historian Diana Bishop opens a bewitched alchemical manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, it represents an unwelcome intrusion of magic into her carefully ordinary life. Though descended from a long line of witches, she is determined to remain untouched by her family’s legacy. She banishes the manuscript to the stacks, but Diana finds it impossible to hold the world of magic at bay any longer.

For witches are not the only otherworldly creatures living alongside humans. There are also creative, destructive daemons and long-lived vampires who become interested in the witch’s discovery. They believe that the manuscript contains important clues about the past and the future, and want to know how Diana Bishop has been able to get her hands on the elusive volume.

Chief among the creatures who gather around Diana is vampire Matthew Clairmont, a geneticist with a passion for Darwin. Together, Diana and Matthew embark on a journey to understand the manuscript’s secrets. But the relationship that develops between the ages-old vampire and the spellbound witch threatens to unravel the fragile peace that has long existed between creatures and humans—and will certainly transform Diana’s world as well.

Rating: 3.5 / 5, and *Unputdownable*

Well… How do you start a review on a 570+ page fantasy novel that combines witchcraft, vampires, forbidden love, Darwinism, alchemy, genetics, and boatloads of history stretching back for centuries? And that’s not everything readers will find in A Discovery of Witches, the first book of Deborah Harkness’ best-selling All Souls Trilogy. I’m a bit of a latecomer to this series (The Book Of Life, the concluding novel, was published in July), and a skeptical one because the paranormal genre doesn’t appeal to me. However, anyone I know who’s read the All Souls Trilogy adores it, so I figured I should give A Discovery of Witches a shot – and though I have some issues with this story, it really was worth reading.

When Discovery begins, historian and reluctant witch Diana Bishop comes across a long-lost alchemy manuscript known as Ashmole 782 in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Diana realizes the manuscript’s bewitched and returns it to the stacks that day, but her discovery has already set off sparks in the world of magic. Within days, Oxford is overrun by witches, vampires, and daemons, all eager for Diana to recall Ashmole 782 so they can discover its secrets. Among them is vampire-geneticist Matthew Clairmont, who positions himself as Diana’s ally and protector despite his skewed moral compass. Because some creatures have threatened Diana’s life over the manuscript – and as an unlikely romance blossoms between Diana and Matthew, those same rivals are willing to tear the two scholars apart.

Like with my previous review (Mary Weber’s Storm Siren), I’m going to start with criticisms despite the positive rating – because once again, I questioned whether I’d finish the book. Firstly, the pace of Discovery is excrutiatingly slow. The first chapter is crammed with backstory that could have been spread out more evenly in later chapters, and other scenes crawl because of the amount of unnecessary step-by-step details. Also, I was annoyed by the shifts in POV. Only four chapters are narrated outside of Diana’s perspective, and are written in third-person omniscient. So, the reader learns not only what Matthew’s thinking or feeling, but what other characters in the scene are experiencing. It was too jarring of a change for me, and thankfully the POV switches only a few times.

The final problem I had with Discovery was that I didn’t experience the conflict’s stakes with Diana. Instead of her being in the thick of the peril and dissention, the other characters (especially Matthew) often shield Diana or keep her at a distance from the villainy. When the antagonists do appear, their presence seems… random and convenient. The few fights and action scenes Harkness includes did take my breath away with their vividness and urgency, yet I wish more scenes like that existed in the story.

So, why did I keep reading Discovery? From Page 100 onward, I found myself completely sucked into the story (no pun intended because of the vampire characters). Golden nuggets popped up everywhere: the Bishops’ quirky and “alive” house, the incredible employment of the senses of taste and smell, the growing cast of unique and endearing characters, the symbolism of Diana’s name. Also, Discovery is quite funny at times! From certain one-liners or bits of dialogue (Matthew’s son Marcus and Diana’s aunt Sarah made for excellent comic relief) to the contrast between Harkness’ intellectual writing style and the absurdity of a given scene or flashback, I laughed with genuine delight throughout the story. Finally, I thought it was neat that Harkness tied much of the characters’ ancestry with historical events such as the Salem witch trials and various international wars. It added a richness and depth to the story that made it more authentic.

Ahhh, Diana and Matthew. Their courtship may have been why Discovery dragged on so long, but what a pleasure it was to watch them get to know each other and fall in love. Both characters are also beautifully developed. Matthew is charming, sophisticated, intelligent, and humorous when least expected – as well as evasive, overprotective of Diana, and struggling to rein in his unpredictable rage. Harkness has only scratched the surface of Matthew’s centuries-long life of emotional wounds in Discovery, and I have a feeling he’ll confront more as the trilogy continues. As for Diana, she’s the yang to Matthew’s yin. Her frankness, bravery, and ability to sponge-absorb all the information thrown at her make her a truly admirable heroine. Sometimes her childishness irritated me, and I hope Diana eventually outgrows it, but it didn’t prevent me from connecting with her.

So, yes, A Discovery of Witches was quite the discovery. While Harkness’ writing style could use some tightening and the story’s turtle-pace tried my patience, the characters and other redeeming qualities compelled me to keep reading. Hey, it’s not very often that I tear through a novel of this length in less than 2 weeks! That’s why I’m giving Discovery an *Unputdownable*. Hopefully the issues I had with this novel will be resolved in Shadow of Night (although the reviews I’ve read so far indicate they might not be). That news, however, won’t deter me from following Diana and Matthew on their search for Ashmole 782.

Have you read A Discovery of Witches? What did you think of it? If you haven’t read it yet, do you think you might check it out based on what you’ve read above? Let me know whether you found my review helpful by clicking here to find it on Amazon and selecting either “Yes” or “No.”

2 thoughts on “Recent Reads: “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness

  1. Pingback: Playing Harry Potter Spell Book Tag! | Sara Letourneau's Official Website & Blog

  2. Pingback: Stacking The Shelves, Vol. 17: The Birthday Haul, Part 1 | Sara Letourneau's Official Website & Blog

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