Book Review: A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

One thing I’ve noticed since I’ve begun following book bloggers and keeping up with friends on Goodreads is that the quality of book I’ve been reading has been getting better. Surely, this is because most of the books I start now have been reviewed by someone whose tastes I understand might be similar to mine.

So, it’s a bit of a cautionary tale that I began listening to the audiobook of Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, which I found by scanning’s “Most Popular” list, forgetting perhaps that in a world of chart-busters such as Stephanie Meyer and Dan Brown that “the people” tend to sometimes get into books that aren’t, well, let’s just say, in my sweet spot.

A Discovery of Witches follows the adventures of Diana Bishop, who has eschewed her heritage as a witch in lieu of making it on her own as an academic historian. While on sabbatical at Oxford, she becomes embroiled in subterfuge concerning a mysterious manuscript that just might hold the key to the nature of witches, vampires and daemons. Initially, she wants nothing of it, but becomes intrigued by and then enamored of a vampire, Matthew Clairmont, who for some reason seems to be looking out for her, as well as the book.

When I started all the bones of a great story seemed to be there: witches, vampires, daemons, biology, alchemy, and history. It seemed as though Harkness wanted to upgrade the Twilightian fantasy by taking the particulars out of high school and make them adults (both in age and in outlook).

Sadly, the story just didn’t hold up for me. Matthew, naturally (or perhaps supernaturally) is supposed to come across as incredibly smart, and incredibly brave, and incredibly handsome, and incredibly strong, and incredibly fast, and incredibly learned on all subjects, and incredibly dangerous and don’t forget incredibly sensitive. What happens is that he becomes incredibly annoying, while Diana gets trapped in the unwilling-but-plucky heroine clichés that make their scenes together – especially after falling for one another – downright painful.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

There were two parts during my listening that really shaped my view.  One came about two-thirds of the way through during probably the best and most tense scenes in the book. I’d been sort of slogging along and was hoping for something to shake things up and it began to seem like it might be coming together.  As I was listening to the climax, I realized that one of two outcomes was most likely: a cliché’ one that you could see coming from a mile away or a courageous one that could really have set the novel in a new and interesting direction.  Guess which one Harkness chose? Yeah.

The other moment was as the book was winding down – about 13 hours into the 14 hour total – that my stomach sank as I realized that THIS BOOK IS NOT A STAND-ALONE STORY!

I should have known.  Isn’t anything that can possibly be labeled as “paranormal” – especially “paranormal romance” – required to come in multiple parts? Of course it is. Naive Stevil.

Anyway, in the end, I think Harkness has tried to write a romantic, paranormal, action adventure – and it was certainly a book I wanted to like more than I did. Oddly enough, in some ways it’s a cross between Twilight and The DaVinci Code. So, if you’re into either one or both of those, give A Discovery of Witches a try.

If not, listen to your friend and give this one a pass.

Two stars out of five


13 thoughts on “Book Review: A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

  1. Oh, ick!
    Pass pass pass!
    I have never touched a Twilight book….well, except to dust them and replace them on my daughter’s bookshelf. I can envision this book as you describe it with no problems! Thanks for putting an invisible force field around it for me! No, thanks! :)

  2. Ouf!

    “is supposed to come across as incredibly smart, and incredibly brave, and incredibly handsome, and incredibly strong, and incredibly fast, and incredibly learned on all subjects, and incredibly dangerous and don’t forget incredibly sensitive. What happens is that he becomes incredibly annoying”

    Says enough to scare me off!

  3. I found a used copy of M.R. James’ “Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories” with an introduction by Michael Chabon, and I think that’s as much reading about the supernatural as I’ll get this summer. The vampire genre has been milked dry: I enjoyed Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire” when it first came out, but her later vampire novels began reading like goth porn. My daughters finally got me to read “Twilight,” but by the fifth chapter I was convinced the heroine was brain-dead. (Most horror stories would never get off the ground if they didn’t have a completely clueless narrator who doesn’t notice the strange shadows at night and the neighbor with fangs and pale skin who never leaves the house.) When a writer starts throwing in witches for extra mileage, it’s time to get the torch and the faggots. Thank you for the tip, Steve.

    • HG — yeah, I agree with vampires being over-used. I was telling mizunogirl that I you can look back and see the arc coming over the last 15 or 20 years. I’ve read pieces by King and Gaimen lamenting the loss of the vampire as “evil” — now they’re just misunderstood super-beings. I’d like to see a break taken for a while and then someone come back with a really strong and scary vampire story. Interestingly, I think Rice also ran the same arc with witches as with vampires — I read and enjoyed “The Witching Hour”, which was atmospheric, original, creepy and scary, but the subsequent “Mayfair Witches” sequels were dreadful.

  4. Wow. That sounds terrible. I read all of Twilight, mostly because I was working with the youth group and the girls were reading it. But, wow. I don’t think I’ve read worse writing with a worse main character. This doesn’t sound much better. Thanks for the warning!

    • Hannah — I think the worst part is that I think Harkness really TRIED to make it better and more “adult” — and it seemed like all the ingredients were there, they just didn’t get put together effectively or compellingly.

  5. Pass from me as well! Wow for you for sticking to it. While I loved Harry Potter, I eschew any of the vampire books. I just walk on by. I imagine the Twilight series, being sort of the first “vampire” story that hit the big time, might be fresher and more original, but I dont like romance books in general so why would i like vampire romance better???

    I want to apologize as well, as I keep meaning to subscribe to you but I never get any email updates!

    • M – well, the vampire’s been on a steady decline for a while. Ann Rice did a good job with Interview With a Vampire and that segued into Buffy/Angel, which was the first time I can remember vampires essentially having “teen” emotions. And as well as Buffy & Angel were done, it opened the floodgates. Someone needs to make vampires really scary again.

      • They’re scary and menacing (mostly) in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Now THAT’S a good book! :) it reads like a biography. It’s weird. But good.

  6. Pingback: Book Review – Need by Carrie Jones « Day in the life of a Busy Gal…

  7. Pingback: Book Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness | The Lit Witch: A Book Blog

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