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A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (2011)
A Discovery of Witches (2011)
by Deborah Harkness
Hardcover Edition
Published Date: December 27, 2011
Publisher: Penguin Books
buy a copy via Amazon.
synopsis via Goodreads.

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.

My Thoughts:
I wonder if I picked up a copy of Twilight fanfiction by mistake because A Discovery of Witches felt like Twilight posing as an adult novel minus the werewolves. Actually, I daresay that Twilight was a better novel–at least you could finish the thing in two days, and the pacing was fine. A Discovery of Witches takes slow pacing to a whole new level (though I have to admit the writing was a lot more refined), and Bella can’t hold a flame to Diana’s annoying personality (before today, I didn’t even think it was possible.) I don’t even know how this made New York Times Bestseller lists. But if a forced love story between wimpy, annoying witches and extremely possessive, handsome vampires are your thing, this is your book.

Diana Bishop is one of the last descendants of the powerful Bishop family line of witches. She is a PhD in alchemy, tall, and lived three decades shutting out magic from her life. She falls in love with a mysterious vampire, discovers a mysterious manuscript…and find out there’s a group set out to destroy her magic and more importantly, break up her and her beloved, Matthew Clairmont.

Major downfall of the novel. I can’t believe I was able to muster enough energy to last through all 580 pages (believe me, I was already counting pages from the 200 page mark.) If I can last through this, I am convinced I can last through anything (bring it on, Tolstoy!) To Harkness’ credit, the beginning was interesting: I was intrigued with Diana’s world of magic, vampires, witches, and daemons–and then it just slid downhill, boring me to tears about horses…tea…wine, fancy rich stuff I don’t care about. Did an editor trim this novel down at all?
The story moves at snail pace until the climax (finally, I thought something interesting would happen)…which resolved on the next page. So much for building up tension. If the rest of the novel moved as fast as that climax, I would be done in less than a fifty pages.

Point of View:
Much of the story is from Diana’s point of view, though there are two chapters from Matthew Clairmont. I find Diana’s point of view suddenly shifting into a passive third person. I was confused when Diana “heard” Matthew conferring with his son, Marcus, about keeping a secret from her–and she didn’t do anything except telling the reader that it happened. I would have expected all hell to break loose from her.

There are characters galore and I am sure by the time you are at 300 page mark you will have a headache just remembering names.
When I only had about sixty pages to go, I thought for sure that no new characters will be introduced–and boy was I wrong.

Diana: I am having difficulty understanding why Harkness made her protagonist so unlikable. Despite much of the story being from her point of view, I couldn’t relate to her at all. I admire her intelligence, she must’ve had something special to get herself a PhD and a position in Yale…but I am doubting her rationale.
She’s a crazy woman. The only thing that matters in her little selfish world is her love life. I feel sorry for her family. They keep calling her to make sure she’s safe and she ignores their calls, dismissing her aunts as being paranoid because she can’t be bothered to answer her phone. I am surprised her aunts haven’t flown out in worry to make sure she wasn’t dead. She’s blessed with such caring family members and yet I am sure she will throw them under the bus in a flash if she had to choose between them and Matthew. At one point she threatens to burn the house down when her aunt questions her. What kind of person threatens to kill the woman that raised her? Diana has no respect for her elders, and someone needs to slap her across the face pronto. People need to stop telling this chick that nothing is her fault and she’s perfect.
Perhaps it’s because of her impressive education that her pride blinds her. She is adamant that she isn’t a “damsel-in-distress,” but that’s exactly what she is. She’s also annoying, whiny, rash, wimpy with no patience whatsoever…and maybe too horny. It’s such a waste that she has so much potential in her genes, and she incessantly claims she “can’t” do anything before even trying. What kind of heroine is this? And why does Matthew have such poor taste in women? In the second half, I couldn’t last five-minutes reading without putting the book down to strangle her in my imagination. And she has poor fashion sense. Can she just die already? She spends much of her time being severely injured anyway.

Matthew: Diana’s love-interest and a voracious, overprotective, 1500 year old vampire. He is supposedly extremely sexy in anything he wears, but I wonder if it’s just Diana being blinded. I am not sure how a vampire can be sexy in yoga pants, but whatever. He is also conveniently rich (does he pay taxes?), with personal jets, helicopters, cars, yachts, castles, mansions…I am surprised he won’t just buy a tank and kill everyone in his way.
Matthew is no better in the family department either. He tells Diana that he would kill his son in an instant if he threatened her. I pity his son, Marcus, who despite his loyalty and friendliness is no competition with some ungrateful, annoying witch.
The main problem with Harkness’s vampires is that they are too perfect. Classic vampires fear sunlight and sleep like the dead. But these vampires have none of those flaws–they can even survive off animal blood if they wish. So basically they are all beautiful, immortal superhumans.
He also incessantly purrs and growls, which is understandable considering your lover is an idiot who refuses to follow directions.

I am utterly sick of hearing them profess their undying love and how early they fell in love with each other. Apparently they are destined to be together anyway. This romance story goes from passionate to just plain annoying in seconds.

The plot went from crystal clear to a confusing hodgepodge of sub-plots. It’s a complex plot with every itsy-bity thing squished in somehow, and I hope that it will somehow work out. At first I thought the novel was about uncovering the mysteries of a bewitched manuscript, then it turned into a forbidden love story, then they had to run away from the evil Congregation…and then Diana discovers her powers…and then time travel. I give up.
I can’t even begin to explain the letter Diana’s mom left for her…just how many papers are there anyway?!? And why would you ask to your seven-year old daughter if their “shadowed man” is with her?

Harkness’s background as a history professor shows–whether you like it or not. I admire Harkness’s knowledge, but at times it gets too much and drags down the plot, making me go from intrigued to exhausted. There are a lot of quotations/poetry from a lot of historical texts. Obviously Matthew and Diana have a much better grasp than I since they are both PhDs. I’m sure Harkness is passionate about history, but the onerous history lessons often alienated the reader instead of supported the plot. The scientific DNA, twins stuff left me with a headache–I gave up trying to comprehend it after the 3rd re-read. At one point I thought Diana was a hermaphrodite (which would have made the story a whole lot more interesting.)

Why there aren’t translations (footnotes? glossary?) is beyond me. Or was I supposed to Google translate the Latin, French, German, and Occitan?

One of the few redeeming factors I can think of. Excessive and seemingly never-ending descriptions…but still some fascinating concepts and scenes nonetheless. I enjoyed the Bishop house that had a mind of its own and screamed “Beauty and the Beast” to me. I was half expecting plates and cups to start singing and dancing.

If you are a historical fiction and Twilight fan, you will eat this up like candy. And if you hate Twilight, you will want to hurl A Discovery of Witches out the window in no time. I originally picked up A Discovery of Witches because I won a Shadow of Night giveaway, and Penguin Viking will be sending me a galley of Shadow of Night (the sequel to A Discovery of Witches.) However, despite the lovely word-building, strong historical research, the book just did not work for me: the main characters felt flat and the pacing was awkward. Deborah Harkness’s fascinating world is captivating, but the delivery was just lacking. Admittedly, I whacked the book twice on the floor after I finished out of frustration. I went from being excited to read Shadow of Night to shoving it in the unreachable depths of my bookcase. For me, A Discovery of Witches is like an alchemy experiment that went terribly wrong.

Rating: D
It makes me slightly sad that this is the first “D” review I wrote since starting the blog…but I just couldn’t convince myself otherwise.