Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness.  Viking Books, 2011.  579 pp.  978-0-670-02241-0.

... in which a witch and a vampire get caught up with an ancient magical manuscript and trigger a war.

A Discovery of Witches reads like a cross between Twilight, Neal Stephenson, and a history book.  The world is populated by humans, in addition to magical creatures, who comprise ~10% of the world's population.  These magical creatures are the vampires, ancient blood-drinkers with enhanced senses and physical abilities but no magic of their own; the daemons, born to humans but endowed with special intelligence, creativity and foresight; and finally, the witches, men and women with the power to use magic within themselves or to use witchcraft, in the form of spells and potions.  The main character, Diana Bishop, is descended from a long line of powerful witches; her oldest known ancestor was executed in Salem for witchcraft.  When she was seven years old, Diana's parents were murdered in Africa because of their magic.  Diana spends the next few decades swearing to never use her magic.  Now in her 30s, Diana is posing as a human and is at the peak of her highly successful career as a historian focusing on the history of science, particularly alchemy.  One day she is researching in Oxford's library, and she calls up an ancient alchemy manuscript from the stacks.  The text, labeled Ashmole 782, is under a powerful enchantment, and Diana can barely see the words hidden behind layers of enchantment.  Refusing to use her latent magic to unlock the secrets of the books, Diana sends the book back to the stacks.  What Diana doesn't know is that this particular manuscript has been under a powerful enchantment for centuries, and powerfully magical creatures have spent many years searching for it.  When it becomes known to the community of magical creatures that Diana had successfully called Ashmole 782 from the stacks, droves of witches, vampires and daemons descend upon Oxford.

Enter Matthew Clairmont, vampire.  Had Edward Cullen from Twilight been in his 30s when he was turned, rather than in his teens, he could very well have been Matthew.  Matthew also wants the manuscript, but as he gets to know Diana, he also begins to take an interest in her welfare, protecting her from the other magical creatures who would gleefully torture Diana for her scant knowledge of the manuscript.  Events begin to spin out of control, with Matthew eventually forced to take Diana to France when a fellow witch threatens Diana's life.  Intertwined in all of this is, of course, a love story.

I have a hard time forming a concrete opinion of this book.  On the one hand, Deborah Harkness, herself a Ph.D.-holding historian, is a skilled writer.  The prose is highly engaging and all of the conversations and backstory are easy to read.  Despite its length, I read about 3/4 of this book in a single sitting (one of those situations where you intend to read 20 pages and then go to sleep at a reasonable hour, and then you look up and it's 5 AM and you're over 400 pages in).  On the other hand, the book is a little irregular in its pacing and its characters.

The book can be divided into three distinct sections: Oxford, England; somewhere near Lyon, France; and Madison, New York.  In the first part, I enjoyed the discussion of Diana's work, and I liked the descriptions of the Oxford setting.  For the first part of the book, Diana herself is a strong, though sometimes naive, heroine with ambition, smarts and independence.  Perhaps it's just because he's a vampire, but Matthew is, of course, stunningly handsome, dazzlingly intelligent, stupidly rich, etc etc etc.  In terms of vampire fiction, the only thing I can say about Matthew is: I've already read this character in multiple other stories.  The most interesting thing about Matthew is his long history, and as a vampire, he's been around for a very long time and has seen some interesting events and has met some historically interesting people.  The first part of the book, set in Oxford, is pretty light on actual events and dense with conversations, detail and setup.  I enjoyed it a great deal.

When the book's setting shifts to France, we meet more of Matthew's family.  This is where the romance part of the story really starts to take prominence.  Most of the part in France bored me, because frankly there's nothing special about Diana and Matthew's romance, apart from the fact that it's forbidden for a witch and a vampire to be together.  Despite the fact that Matthew brought Diana to France to protect her from people who want to kill her, their time in France seems to be pretty jolly, full of horse rides and other silly things.  This is also the part of the book where the story turns into Twilight, where Matthew is most like Edward, and Diana is most like Bella.  It's a lot of Matthew being stupidly protective and a lot of Diana just going along with what he says and mooning over him.  In Matthew's defense, he was born in an era where knights went to war to protect their womenfolk, and when knights belonged to secret orders and brotherhoods devoted to protecting the weak.  Edward, having been born in the early 1900s, did not have this excuse.  Probably the most interesting part of the French section of the book is Matthew's vampire mother.  Incredibly ancient and incredibly French, Ysabeau is a very nuanced, conflicted character with a lot of events in her past making her the person she is today.  The evolution of her relationship with Diana and her relationship with her son are well done. 

The final part of the book takes place in Diana's home town of Madison, New York, where she was raised by her aunt Sarah and Sarah's partner Emily.  This is probably the most eventful section of the book.  Diana and Matthew are forced to leave France and go to New York to seek the protection of Diana's aunts, who can protect them from their fellow witches better than the vampires could.  This is also the part of the book where events and clues from earlier in the story begin to come together, and we begin to see that the developing conflict is about more than an old manuscript and a forbidden love.  Diana learns some secrets from her past, and also begins to come into her own, by developing her long-dormant powers and asserting herself as an equal to Matthew.  Diana's aunts are well-developed characters, each with her own dynamic and their own place in Diana's life.  Probably the most entertaining character in this part of the book is the house itself, which is sentient and willful and enjoys pushing its residents around to suit its own purposes.

The book ends on a cliffhanger, which is to be expected, as it's the first in a trilogy.  Despite its weak middle section and its hugely boring vampire, it's an engaging read.  It's probably not for people who need a ton of action and battles and such, but its rich details make up for the lack of action.  The witches of the book are a nice departure from Harry Potter, where the magical folk need only to wave a wand and say the right words for results.  The witches in this book use a much more individualized, organic approach, definitely a throwback to the pagan and Wiccan traditions of long ago.  I waver between a 3 star rating (I really did not care for Matthew and the romantic element of the story), and a 4 star rating.  I fell down on the 4 star side because I did enjoy reading it, and I intend to read its sequels.

4/5 stars

4/11/11: Note: rating changed to 3 stars.


  1. Also it had a very compelling cliffhanger, with a hint of some really really good developments in the future.

  2. On second thought, I am demoting this to 3 stars.

  3. The love story between the witch and her handsome protector really and truly had me loving this book by Deborah Harkness. I was completely invested in them coming together. This is probably one of the few books I have read where the love story did not conclude the book but in fact, was the beginning of the story. When Diana met Matthew, I was waiting for her to meet her knight in shining armor. In fact, I was kinda wondering how the author would move Matthew out of our heroines way so she could indeed meet her eventual lover.


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