A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

edenskeeper September 4, 2012 1 Book Reviews
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 A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

 When historian Diana Bishop opens a bewitched alchemical manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library it represents an unwelcome intrusion of magic into her carefully ordinary life. Though descended from a long line of witches, she is determined to remain untouched by her family’s legacy. She banishes the manuscript to the stacks, but Diana finds it impossible to hold the world of magic at bay any longer.

For witches are not the only otherworldly creatures living alongside humans. There are also creative, destructive daemons and long-lived vampires who become interested in the witch’s discovery. They believe that the manuscript contains important clues about the past and the future, and want to know how Diana Bishop has been able to get her hands on the elusive volume.

Chief among the creatures who gather around Diana is vampire Matthew Clairmont, a geneticist with a passion for Darwin. Together, Diana and Matthew embark on a journey to understand the manuscript’s secrets. But the relationship that develops between the ages-old vampire and the spellbound witch threatens to unravel the fragile peace that has long existed between creatures and humans—and will certainly transform Diana’s world as well.

“Together we lifted our feet and stepped into the unknown.”

The first two hundred pages of this novel were grueling for me. I truly struggled to connect with Diana & Matthew in any way other than intellectually. The lack of any empathy on my part towards these characters was an absolute reflection of the dullness of the characters. Diana and Matthew spend the better part of the novel engaged in research & routine in a rather lackluster cat and mouse game. They both lack even the most basic of human social skills leading me at one point to claim that this book is an aspie love story.

(In all fairness – I listened to this novel on CD and that could be part of the problem.  While the narrator has received praise from many sources for this work, I found her uninspiring. The book is challenging because there are easily over 10 accents to cover and a multitude of characters. She seemed to have difficulty holding onto the accents and would easily lapse into some vague British tone.)

The novel finally picks up the pace towards the end and not coincidentally with the addition of other characters and settings far from the patrician academic halls of Oxford.  True to her own professorial background, Harkness fills the novel with a scholar’s love for detailed minutiae.  The novel would have greatly benefited from a broader, more introductory explanation of alchemy – historical  lore & artistry. Instead, Harkness delves into the subject of  alchemy in such a way as to leave me re-reading the same lines over and over in order to better understand a reference, making me feel that I am missing certain necessary information that must have been taught in an earlier class.

A Discovery of Witches creates a primary lore – that all daemons, witches & vampires may have at one point been related to each other or descended from a common ancestor.  Over the years, each group has avoided intermingling and inter-species (?) relationships were outlawed.  Coincidentally, each group has also faced a diminishment of power and numbers.  When Diana Bishop innocently examines Ashmole 187 (a document that has been completely inaccessible for 100s of years) she is completely unaware that she might be holding the key that explains how these groups evolved and how they  might be restored. Prominent members of each of the groups are subsequently dispatched to ascertain what Diana has learned and gain control of the manuscript.

While Harkness has listed various inspirations for writing this novel, she has not directly stated that it was in any way meant to be a veiled political statement regarding prejudice and its role in society. Instead – she is often quoted as stating that she simply wondered if she could write a successful vampire novel.

All jokes aside, the novel does pick up the pace in the last third of the book. The scenes revolving Diana’s loss of control in discovering her skills; Diana’s kidnapping & subsequent torture; and Matthew’s research; are all cerebral but more exciting. Admittedly – Diana’s relationship with Matthew is comical in so many ways including their academic approach to establishing a relationship  – observe (s/he is attractive); form a hypotheses (I think I love s/he); prove or disprove the thesis and if all else fails apply Occam’s Razor to your findings and determine that this must in fact be a relationship.

The fact that Matthew & Diana can fall in love, marry & live together as man & wife without ever having consummated their marriage is too much for me to handle.  I immediately wondered if Matthew was gay or in on another plot to retrieve Ashmole 187. But many readers have been willing to suspend disbelief to follow Harkness down this path.

Readers will be interested in noting that Harkness has combined quite a bit of scientific history into the novel.  Overall – I found the seond novel in the trilogy, Shadow of Night, to be much more entertaining.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elias_Ashmole and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alchemy

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