Review: “A Discovery of Witches,” Deborah Harkness

Pros: Some interesting world-building
Cons: Kind of a mess; unlikable characters
Rating: 2 out of 5

Diana Bishop is a history professor who studies alchemy. She’s a witch from a long line of powerful witches, but she uses her magic as little as she can possibly get away with; she’d much rather be a human. There are three types of creatures in the world: daemons, vampires, and witches. (It’s a little weird that they call themselves ‘creatures’.) Daemons are born to humans, and they supposedly specialize in creativity and intelligence. Vampires are created by vampires, and witches are born to witches. When she finds a very unusual alchemical manuscript, everyone takes an interest in her. One of those people, Matthew Clairmont, is a very old vampire. Naturally, Diana will have to grow into her powers now in order to keep herself alive while she tries to gain answers to her questions.

 

Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches is the first book in her All Souls Trilogy. It’s a bit longer than most modern urban fantasies, and I wish I could say that it makes good use of all that space. Stick with me as I try to piece my feelings for this book into a more-or-less coherent whole.

First, for the majority of the book the main characters (and nearly every side character) act pissy, judgmental, condescending, argumentative, cranky… you get the idea. It makes it difficult to like any of them whatsoever. Some characters seem to vacillate back and forth between reasonableness and having sudden, extreme bouts of anger. In the case of Matthew that’s actually supposed to be a deliberate flaw for him, but so many other characters behave similarly that it doesn’t stand apart. Also, his anger often seemed somewhat random. Tempers seemed to even out a bit toward the end of the book.

Next, some details are just… weird. Diana recognizes daemons when they look at her because it creates a sensation of being ‘nudged’ (which she describes as the feel of a kiss at one point). That’s just strange, and even more so because daemons aren’t inherently sexual creatures. There’s also the fact that even though the three types of creature generally don’t mix, they’re willing to set all that aside for… yoga class?!

Things get over-explained and re-explained frequently toward the beginning of the book. The author doesn’t seem to trust her readers to understand or remember much of anything on the first try. Then there are parts of the story that get jammed in where they don’t seem to belong. We find out a lot about a vampire named Marcus in such a way that it derails the tension and pacing of the story-in-progress. More than a third of the way into the book we finally get informed that there’s a “Congregation” of three of each type of creature that make decisions for their fellows. There isn’t much of an explanation as to what they usually do or why anyone else would follow their dictates.

Matthew is roughly 1500 years old, and (as always happens in these stories) has met a long list of famous historical figures. You’d think that wouldn’t happen so much when you’re trying to keep your head down so that no one figures out you haven’t aged. It’s hard to imagine that someone that old could possibly carry on a romantic relationship with someone as young (and often childish) as Diana. Of course vampires are kind of messed up in other ways: becoming a vampire makes you taller. I’m not kidding. (I’m assuming this is their workaround for the fact that people used to be shorter, but it’s a pretty baldfaced kludge.)

Diana is a definite Mary Sue character. Everybody either envies/hates her for her massive powers etc., or (even if they’re kind of evil and nasty) comes to appreciate and in most cases love her. Diana repeatedly violates Matthew’s privacy without any real negative reaction on his part. She insists that he tell her all his secrets, then gets mad at him any time she discovers a new one–even though most of them don’t qualify as secrets; they just fall under the idea that it’s going to take more than a couple of days to bring her up to date on 1500 years of life. She goes pawing through his secret drawer in his desk even though she supposedly loves him by now. I got so frustrated that no one called her on her self-righteous speech about secrets when she’s violating his privacy all over the place, expecting to be told 1500 years’ worth of details overnight, and failing to tell him everything about her life at the same time. Naturally, no one calls her on her behavior or gets upset over it, thus giving the impression she’s being entirely reasonable. (I feel bad for Matthew for the fact that he fell in love with someone to whom he must constantly prove himself worthy.)

My kiss demanded he tell me what the problem was.

That’s quite the detailed kiss, there. This is the sort of thing that makes me facepalm, and this is hardly the only instance of it. There are some things that bugged me that I’m leaving out because they’d spoil an (admittedly obvious) story development later on.

Toward the end of the long book I finally started to enjoy some of the material. We got to see more of Diana’s family, who own a family house that does things like add extra rooms when it realizes company is coming. That house has a better personality than anyone else in the book.

 

While reading A Discovery of Witches I kept constantly putting it down. It took me rather longer than it should have to finish the book, but it annoyed me too much to hold my interest. If it weren’t for the fact that I recently received book three to review and wanted to read the rest of the series first, I would have stopped in the middle and given up on it.

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