“A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness

I purchased the book “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness after meeting the author at BEA and receiving a signed copy of the next book in the All Souls Trilogy.

Normally I’m wary about vampire books, but I decided to take a chance on this series because I’ve heard so many good things about it.  It helps that the vampires are nerdy scholars with a penchant for old documents, so it makes their faults more forgivable.

Diana Bishop is a witch who’s doing research at Oxford’s Bodelian Library.  Her family is very powerful, but she doesn’t like to use magic because she feels like it nullifies her own professional accomplishments.  One day Diana comes across an enchanted alchemical manuscript that’s been missing for a very long time.  Her discovery draws the attention of a bunch of vampires, demons, and other witches, all of whom have a vested interest in the contents of the book.  One such individual is Matthew Clairmont, a vampire scientist who is fond of fine wine.  Even though relationships between vampires and witches are strictly forbidden, she finds herself falling in love with him.

The relationship dynamic between Diana and Matthew didn’t appeal to me right away.  Matthew is a bit controlling, but not in a good way.  It’s more of an Edward Cullen I-watch-you-in-your-sleep type deal, which is not sexy but definitely prosecutable as breaking and entering, especially when the individuals involved aren’t dating yet.

It gets better (and less creepy) as the book progresses and the two become an established couple.  The two of them weren’t completely hopeless, and there were aspects of their relationship that I did enjoy, such as the fact that Diana and Matthew are intellectually matched and can have intelligent conversations with each other.  My favorite part of the book was Diana’s reaction to being shown Matthew’s collection of books that he had accumulated over the centuries:

“Imagine what you’d have if you’d been buying books for centuries,” Matthew said with a shrug that reminded me of Ysabeau.  “Things pile up.  We’ve gotten rid of a lot over the years.  We had to.  Otherwise this room would be the size of the Bibliotheque Nationale.”

The scene reminded me of the part in “Beauty and the Beast” where the Beast shows Belle his library, and that gesture IS sexy (unlike, as I’ve noted, breaking into a girl’s apartment and watching her sleep).

It’s obvious that Matthew is a stereotypical hot vampire character who is supposed to represent the ideal male.  He doesn’t have any depth of personality, but rather seems to be more of a sexual/romantic fantasy insert.  I’m not terribly distraught about that because it is summer and I enjoy the occasional romance if both characters are endowed with functional brains.

The biggest problem that I had with this book is that it needed a better editor, particularly one who could help to chop it down to about half of its length.  The author has a tendency to ramble and to include every little detail of Diana’s daily routine.  I don’t need to know every time Diana changes clothes, especially considering the fact that all of her clothing is pretty much the same.  I don’t need to know when she eats, drinks, sleeps, does yoga, goes rowing, etc.  There is so much excessive detail about Diana’s life that I half expected to have to read about her changing her tampons and/or pooping.  It’s too much, and it doesn’t further the plot in any meaningful way.

I like the idea of a book that revolves around an old manuscript.  It makes my inner librarian happy.  When I started reading I was expecting something more like Elizabeth Kostova’s “The Historian.”  This wasn’t quite like that, but the setting appealed to me nonetheless, and the book did contain a lot of literary and historical references.

I have mixed feelings on this book.  There were a lot of things that didn’t work for me, but at the same time it was still entertaining enough to finish.  It took about 350 pages for the plot to pick up, but once it did I had a hard time putting the book down.  Despite its faults, it’s a decent summer read, and I’ve already started reading the sequel.  I’ve got high hopes for “Shadow of Night” because many of the problems that I had with “A Discovery of Witches” were confined to the first half of the book, and I’m expecting that the second book will jump right into the story.  I’m also looking forward to seeing Harkness’ level of detail in the second book because it’s set in Elizabethan England, which is one of my favorite time periods to read about.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Romance | Tags: , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

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18 thoughts on ““A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness

  1. Hi Grace, I read this one ages ago and I did like it and was looking forward to book No.2 but like you I did have some mixed feelings. I think I enjoyed the writing and the academic setting and all the references more than anything. What I found puzzling/annoying was Matthew – a bit like you. I got a tiny bit tired of all the references to what he was wearing but more than that there was this overall feeling of EVERYONE being scared of him (like the library would empty if he was in there for example) and yet in the end he turned out to be as much use as a chocolate toothbrush and Diana pretty much had to look after herself (and him). I will definitely pick up No.2 (not sure if it’s released in UK yet although due soon) because I’m in the mood for a bit more of a historical read and I was looking forward to that aspect.
    Thanks for the review.
    Lynn 😀

    • I think that you’ll enjoy the second book. I finished it this weekend and should be posting the review within the next day or two. The academic aspect of the book is the primary appeal to me as well; I love the idea of a book about an old document and the fact that demons/witches/vampires care about said manuscript.

  2. Hi

    I think I may try this one out for some good mind candy. I need something in between my heavy reading and textbooks! Thanks!

    • You’re welcome! I’m not looking forward to the semester starting again either. 😉

  3. I love vampire books.I bought this not long ago and am still looking forward to it although I might have the same reservations. I’m not sure what to make of this sentence “Matthew is controlling, but not in a good way”. Is there a good way?
    I’m not sure I cann live with the description overload. I know some people love it but like you know I don’t need to know everything.

    • Well, I don’t mind some control/domination in fictional relationships. It’s just that there’s a big difference between mutual consent and being a creepy stalker, and sneaking into someone’s house and watching them sleep crosses that line.

      If the descriptions added to the story and weren’t so repetitive then I wouldn’t have minded so much. I don’t mind the descriptions at all in the second book because sensory details in Elizabethan England are useful and build the setting, whereas the same level of detail in the modern world is just annoying.

  4. I agree, there’s a lot of description in these books, but in the end, I did like them. I just finished the second book in the series this week and there were a few things — Matthew’s controlling behavior to name one — that drove me a little crazy but I have to admit that I love the history and books that are part of the story. I’m a sucker for a book about a book. 🙂

    • I love the historical setting in the second book and the way that literary figures play such a prominent role in the story. I’m about halfway through, and I’ll probably finish it today. 😛

  5. That’s an interesting comment, Grace, about established authors getting better editing on their later books. I believe there must be some sort of strangely shaped curve on that, because I’ve read some horribly self-indulgent books by bestselling authors that are desperately in need of a good editor. When an author has a well-established readership, some publishers seem to lose all their critical judgment.

    I hate it when authors describe every meal and every outfit! Two who immediately come to mine are Janet Evanovich (so much junk food I get a contact donut sugar high) and Jacqueline Winspear (yes, 1920s outfits were awesome, and Maisie looks lovely in everything she dons, but enough already.)

    Thanks for another thoughtful review!

    • You’re welcome!

      I don’t mind details about meals and clothes if they’re relevant. One or two outfit or meal descriptions though are generally enough for readers to grasp whatever personality trait the author is trying to convey, but more than that can be frustrating, especially when the story is set in the modern world and you don’t need a Georgette Heyer to tell you what life was like in the past.

  6. I actually had a hard time getting into The Historian (250 pages to be exact, yes, I was keeping count) so I’m more than willing to give a book its fair share of read time to see if I like that. Honestly, this series intrigues me (not the changing clothes stuff) because I’m thinking, Nerdy Vampires and Witches? Win! 😀

    • I’m around a hundred pages into the second book and I’m liking it a lot better than the first. I have a theory that major publishers are lazy with editors until a book hits bestseller status, mostly because I noticed a huge difference in the quality of the editing between the first and second books of the Hunger Games series as well. 🙂

  7. I want to read The Historian this year, and now, thanks to you I’m going to add this book to my wishlist 🙂

    • “The Historian” is fantastic. I love the way that it uses a historical treasure hunt type narrative to explore the history of vampires.

  8. I endured this one when it came out and thought it was the biggest example of Mary Sue novel I’d read in a long, long time. As you said, the long passages about what Diana will wear and the descriptions of the various wines and foods being eaten eventually drove me nuts and I’d skim them. I did some research and found out that Diana is a LOT like the author.

    As you said, an editor might have saved this book…but not for me. I have no intention of reading further in this series and I actively discourage others from reading it.

    • I’m hoping that the second book is better because did enjoy this one (As a light summer read, not a literary masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination. I just have a hard time finding light reading that doesn’t make me want to chuck the book across a room…) once we got to the plot instead of just Diana running around and eating and changing clothes and sitting in the library. Diana’s a very blatant self-insert, and I had a very hard time caring about her daily activities.

  9. Yes, 600 pages does seem excessive for what you describe. I remember reading a book in which the characters were always either drinking coffee or making lemonade. It grew tedious times ten.

    • Mhm… luckily, the second half of the book improved drastically, and I can see why so many people love the it. It just took way too long to get set up and a good editor could have solved that.

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