Tour’s Books Blog

April 1, 2011

Book Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

This week I’ve read two really long books in the paranormal genre – and they could NOT be more different.  Each deserves its own review, but for different reason, so this is one of my single book reviews, something I don’t do much of lately.  For all the hype on both books, neither came up to scratch.

  • Title: A Discovery of Witches
  • Author:  Deborah Harkness
  • Type:  Paranormal romance adventure; book 1 of a trilogy
  • Genre:  A witch who refuses to use magic, finds a hidden book sought by the 3 other races
  • Sub-genre:  Academic blend of magic, romance and science
  • My Grade: C+  (3.3*)
  • Rating:  PG-13
  • Length and price:  Plus novel – about 120,000+ $15-$20 with list of $28.95
  • Where Available:  Available at most bookstores
  • FTC Disclosure:  purchased from online bookstore

This epic length tome, and it is a tome, ran a dense 579 pages.  A Discovery of Witches has vampires, witches, daemons, and ghosts, but not quite what you might expect.  Vampires, witches and daemons all move in normal society, operating in such a way that they they try to go unnoticed by humans.  They refer to themselves a ‘creatures’.  In an effort to distance herself from her hereditary witch powers, Dr. Diana Bishop built her life around the academic pursuit of scientific history, specifically that period in the 1600 and 1700 hundreds when science began moving from the philosophy that governed alchemy to one based in scientific fact and mathematics.  But running through the book is the idea of ‘permutation’ and sudden evolution.

At its core, this is a ‘forbidden love’ story in the Montagues and Capulets tradition.  Having moved in that direction, it keeps circling back to the second theme of evolution and how you look at natural selection.  It’s blended with the concept of making the legendary Philosopher’s Stone – in science terms the coming together of separate things to make a whole new thing.  In that sense, it’s much like the Hegelian dialectic of Thesis (accepted norm), antithesis (counterpoint to the norm), combine and create a synthesis (the outcome of the joining of the two opposing entities).  Some interesting concepts to be sure.  But there were problems.  Though many people say this is a book about books, it is less about books than it about the power of knowledge in fracturing longstanding beliefs and prejudice and creating new, often frightening, realities – that was unceremoniously buried under a rather pedestrian romance.

A Discovery of Witches is set at Oxford and New England with excursions to various other places and times.   It opens with Dr Diana Bishop, a descendant of Bridget Bishop, the first woman hanged as a witch in Salem, researching for a publication on alchemy’s transition into science.  Her parents were both very powerful witches, but they were murdered while in Africa when she was 7 years old.  Diana rejected her magical inheritance and chose the study of scientific history instead, brilliantly researching and publishing books on the subject.  On sabbatical, she’s spending the year at Oxford doing research when she calls up a volume on alchemy, Ashmole 782.  The reappearance of this enchanted book and the fact Diana perused, however briefly, brings the magical creatures crowding into the library, but the one that disturbs her the most is a handsome vampire, Dr Matthew Clairmont, a Fellow and researcher in various fields related to genetics.

When Diana calls up Ashmole 782, she realizes the book is enchanted immediately, but when she examines it,  she finds three very surprising things.  First, 3 pages had been removed from the folio, seemingly cut with a razor.  Second, the illustrations were are a bit off, different from the traditional alchemical symbols used elsewhere, symbols steeped in allegorical meaning.  And third, and most significant, the book was a palimpsest.  Long before books were printed, monks and other scraped parchment and vellum sheets free of old inks and wrote over them, leaving ghost images of the earlier work, much as artists would paint over used canvases.  But Ashmole 782 was different.  The ghost text seemed deliberate.  Diana is stunned and frightened.  This book might very well challenge everything she believes and bring down the very life in science, free of magic.  She sends the book back, but doing so snaps the protective spell in place again  But just calling Ashmole 782, a volume missing for over a hundred years that even the most powerful of all witches have been unable to recall, has attracted a lot of notice among all the creatures, daemon, witch and vampire.

All this happens in the first 20 pages.  Two hundred pages later, the glacial pace of the story is still ever so slowly unwinding, but the dance becomes about Diana overcoming her prejudice against vampires, especially Matthew, and slowly changing to acknowledge her attachment to him and her need to take her place among the Bishop witches.  This is hard for Diana, and for Matthew.  Creatures are all taught they must stay with their own kind.  Witches in particular.   The idea of a witch and vampire in love is anathema to both species.  But Matthew is researching creatures, collecting and analyzing DNA, and finds that creatures are dying out, slowly becoming extinct.  In Darwin’s theory – the most adaptable species wins – that’s the humans, not the creatures.  So how are the creatures to survive this threat?  How must they evolve? I did find the science parts of the book really interesting, but others might gladly skip that part.  What I found most lacking was spirit.  Diana and Matthew didn’t leap off the pages and come alive for me, engage me, pull me into their lives.  Instead, they stayed lost in the atmosphere, adsorbed into the story like actors without stage presence.  Even the shifting of the point of view from first person (Diana) to third didn’t make any difference.

Unfortunately, the story, while beautifully written, is not enthralling.  For an intelligent woman, Diana is strangely blind about what she is – and WHY she is.  Matthew is occasionally annoying, though largely sympathetic, but his self flagellation over past errors and his his propensity to violent outbursts get old quickly.   The author’s love of wine, books, and libraries shines through in her lushly descriptive and detailed prose.   Unfortunately, her gift for creating characters is less well developed than her gift for atmosphere and settings.

A Discovery of Witches has much to recommend it, and nearly as much to put off readers.  Some see this as an ‘adult Twilight’ or Harry Pottery with time travel (which was one of those gratuitous elements that annoyed me).  It’s neither to me.  It both impressed and disappointed me.  After 400 pages, it gets on the nerves.  There are so many key events in the last 150 or pages, it’s almost a different book and it all felt so rushed.  Most ‘revelations’ you could see coming, but there were a few surprises.  Why this wasn’t handled with better pacing is beyond me.  And that’s my real hang-up.  Pacing.  The first 100-150 pages are really good,then I got kind of bored and almost started disliking the whole story.  The ending frustrated me.  Five hundred pages and that’s it?  You chuck in new characters who drop all kinds of prophecy statements, change the course of the story, reveal this big thing about Diana and that’s where it stops?  New characters, discussion of a counter-revolution and main 2 characters disappear into time?  Really?  GAH!  It felt like a cop out.

There were some brilliant parts to this book, the ending wasn’t one of them.  The other issue was the pacing.  I love great long stories – Nobel House, Aztec, The Lord of the Rings, but the characters and plot here just couldn’t engage the reader on the same level.  It doesn’t rank with the best, but neither is it a clone of the majority of the paranormal books written today.  It is original, interesting, filled with fascinating discussions on the nature of alchemy and philosophy of natural sciences, evolution of species, and other interesting natural philosophy subjects, but it’s no barn burner and, I my opinion, overrated.  There are a few technical errors, but I only really caught the one  about vaccinations all at once, which mattered not at all, other than to make me wonder a bit about other things, and the whole whole multi-published, best-selling, PhD with tenure at Yale at 35 years was ……… well, let’s just say credibility was an issue even for someone who is hyper-active.  I would have been a LOT more impressed if this book had been less about Diana and Matthew and more about the palimpsest.  What a great hook and it was abandoned for a trite ‘forbidden love’ trope.  Wow, was that frustrating.

Here comes the tough part, is A Discovery of Witches worth $15-$20?  Man, is this a tough call.  If you’re desperate to read it, yes, it’s worth it.  At almost 600 pages, you get your money’s worth.  Certainly any paperback version will go out in one REALLY large volume, or two volumes, so in the end, the hardcover might be a bargain.  But keep in mind, this is largely a romance, not UF, or a kick-butt thriller.  It’s more a story to appeal to the fans of Diana Gabaldon meets Preston & Child than adult readers of Happy Potter, Patricia Briggs, or Jim Butcher.


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