A Discovery of Witches

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

• Paperback: 592 pages

• Publisher: Paperback, 2011

• ISBN: 0143119680

• Genre: Fantasy/Paranormal; Adult Contemporary

• Recommended For: Anyone who enjoys fantasy in the paranormal vein, particularly vampire romance, as well as those who enjoy academia.

Quick Review: This was a good book which had a lot of interesting themes and an excellent use of setting, but was bogged down by extraneous details and a clichéd vampire love story.

Earns a 66 %, or 3.3 stars out of 5. Check out my rubric for my detailed assessment.

A Discovery of Witches Review Rubric

How I Got Here: I had heard a lot of positive things about this book, and I believe it was on a few “Best of 2011” lists. I added it on my TBR list in late 2011, and when I recently indulged myself with a trip to the local bookstore, I spotted it and bought it!

The Book: Goodreads’ Synopsis

A richly inventive novel about a centuries-old vampire, a spellbound witch, and the mysterious manuscript that draws them together.

Deep in the stacks of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, young scholar Diana Bishop unwittingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript in the course of her research. Descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana wants nothing to do with sorcery; so after a furtive glance and a few notes, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery sets a fantastical underworld stirring, and a horde of daemons, witches, and vampires soon descends upon the library. Diana has stumbled upon a coveted treasure lost for centuries-and she is the only creature who can break its spell.

Debut novelist Deborah Harkness has crafted a mesmerizing and addictive read, equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense. Diana is a bold heroine who meets her equal in vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont, and gradually warms up to him as their alliance deepens into an intimacy that violates age-old taboos. This smart, sophisticated story harks back to the novels of Anne Rice, but it is as contemporary and sensual as the Twilight series-with an extra serving of historical realism.

My Analysis and Critique:

As Jessica from Shhh Mommy’s Blogging commented, this book is not rocket science. Yet, it is somewhat long at 592 pages, mainly due to a lot of details! I’m going to say that I liked this book, it was satisfactory. Because I have almost equal amounts of praise and complaints about A Discovery of Witches, I’m going to split this review into halves–what I loved and what troubled me. Let’s start on a positive note!

What I Loved:

Image Credit: John Downing/Rex

I absolutely loved the descriptions of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. In the first third of the book, the protagonist Diana spends nearly all of her time doing research, and Harkness’ details really make the library come to life. As a library lover (especially university libraries), for me, this was wonderful, and made me realize how much I miss academic research in the stacks. Also, I really want to visit this library in the future!

Actually, I really liked all of Harkness’ descriptions of setting. The protagonist spends time in a castle in France, and her former home in upstate New York, and I really felt that these settings came to life as I read. Much appreciated.

In addition, I really enjoyed Harkness’ use of science and history in her novel. Diana is a historian and her love interest, Matthew, is a scientist, and their respective interests added a nice academic tone to the novel. I’m still not quite sure how the details of their research added to the overall plot, but I enjoyed them all the same.

Finally, I enjoyed the witchcraft in the novel. There wasn’t much, as Diana is a very reluctant witch, but the little bit that was there was fun.

Now, here’s my problems…

Harkness’ writing felt muddled and disorganized at times. Often, I’d have to double-check to see if I missed something. But, I didn’t; it was usually just an extra, unnecessary detail.

Which is truly the main flaw with this novel–too many details! Harkness includes every possible detail, even if it’s insignificant. For example, in one sentence, a character is sitting in “grandma’s recently returned rocker”. Now, I’m a careful reader, so when I see “recently returned,” I’m thinking “What? What did I miss? When was the rocker not there? When was it returned? Is this important?” It wasn’t. It wasn’t mentioned before, and it didn’t come up after, and had nothing to do with the plot. This seems small, but extraneous details like this occur again and again, while lots of loose ends in the plot never get tied up.

For example, a seemingly important plot element is that there’s been a series of murders being committed by vampires in the opening of the book. While this gets explained a bit in the middle, Harkness makes it seem as if these vampire murders are really relevant to the plot, but they’re not. There are many other examples of loose ends in the novel that I can’t even remember because they got lost in all of the details.

Another issue with Harkness’ novel is all of the apparent mind-reading between Diana and her vampire Matthew. While mind-reading is (or will be) one of Diana’s powers, Matthew does not have this power (unless that is one detail that Harkness actually did leave out). Yet, there are a few times in the story where it seems as if he can read Diana’s mind. Diana is the first person narrator, and sometimes she will think about something in her narration, and Matthew responds to these thoughts that were only privy to the reader with dialogue. Here’s an example:

“Shall we walk the rest of the way?” he suggested. “We can take it slowly.”

He was different this morning. He wasn’t coddling me or telling me what to do.

“What’s changed?” I asked as we approached the ancient oak tree.

“I’ve seen you fight,” he said quietly. (517-518)

How did he know what she was talking about? Did Harkness leave out some dialogue? There was no context that I could find to help him understand what she was talking about, and he didn’t seem that different to me, so it wouldn’t have been obvious. If this were a single instance, I wouldn’t mention it, but this apparent mind-reading (or sloppy dialogue writing) occurs often. It really bugged me.

Finally, I didn’t care about the romance angle of this novel. I groaned when Matthew was introduced in the novel as a vampire and it became apparent that he would be Diana’s love interest. Yet, I had faith that it wouldn’t be too bad, as this book had some originality with its academic angle, and Diana seemed like a strong, intelligent woman. But, in the end, it still just felt like Bella and Edward grown up. Actually, once Diana and Matthew became romantically involved, I started scanning all of their lovey-dovey pages. Not even scanning, just skipping. Boring!

Overall, while I did enjoy the settings described in the novel, and I found the academia, history, and science themes original and interesting, and I loved the little bits of witchcraft involved, A Discovery of Witches was really bogged down by extraneous details and a “been there, done that” vampire love story. Yet, I probably will read the next novel in the trilogy, as Harkness will delve into Elizabethan England, as she did with Oxford and academia with this one.


Deborah Harkness’ Website

Goodreads Reviews