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A Discovery of Witches US cover

A Discovery of Witches UK cover

Deborah Harkness would like you to know that Diana Bishop, the witchy heroine of New York Times bestseller A Discovery of Witches, is not a damsel in distress. I know this because, just pages before vampire Matthew Clairmont sedates Diana, wraps her in blankets, and carries her to bed, he tells her, "You are many things, Diana. But a damsel in distress is not one of them" (p. 192).

A Discovery of Witches is full of contradictions such as these, in which the text states that its supernatural characters are one thing, while showing us the exact opposite. This is in never truer than in the case of Diana herself. When we meet our heroine and sometimes-narrator, she's supposedly a successful academic studying history at Oxford. She spends her days poring over manuscripts in the library; her evenings jogging or rowing. It's a very neat little fantasy of academic life, and not in the least because Diana is special, a witch who has decided to ignore her powers in favor of research and yoga.

The novel could be about Diana's discovery of Ashmole 782, an alchemical manuscript she finds hidden in Oxford's libraries. In fact, it ostensibly is about this, if the back cover blurb is to be believed. But instead, the opening chapters are a ponderously detailed infodump about Diana's family. This includes information about their hair styles ("Her blond hair was fashionably tousled even though the clothes she wore remained stuck in 1977" [p. 5]) and petty details about Diana's childhood ("I buried myself in the stuff of human adolescence—horses and boys and romantic novels" [p. 7]). None of this is particularly interesting.

This extended musing—which seems intent on proving Diana's normalcy, despite the fact that she knows she has powerful supernatural powers—goes on for a dozen pages. Then Diana meets vampire academic Matthew Clairmont. He gives her his business card ("blue-and-white," we're told, as if it matters [p. 19]), and invites her out for dinner. This is where the real story begins.

Because, despite all outward appearances, A Discovery of Witches is neither the story of a mysterious alchemical manuscript and the academic who rediscovers it, nor the story of a witch who has spent her whole life denying her powers. Sure, these aspects are present in the novel, but they serve as nothing more than a fancy paranormal backdrop to an extremely run of the mill romance. The first third of this hefty tome is filled with exceedingly detailed accounts of dates, as Matthew wines and dines Diana. He takes her out to fancy restaurants. He watches her jog. The two go to yoga together. In this universe, supernatural creatures love yoga.

Through these passages, we get a stitch-by-stitch account of Diana's outfits, from the color of her yoga pants to the holes in her rowing tights. There are also fawning descriptions of Matthew's conspicuous wealth:

The Jaguar was an older model, without the latest technology of keyless entries and navigation systems, but it looked as if it had just rolled off the show-room floor. He pulled the door open, and I climbed in, the caramel-colored leather upholstery fitting itself to my body. I'd never been in a car so luxurious. (p. 65)

It's in this swank chariot that Matthew takes Diana to various equally swank restaurants and cafes, where Diana muses about the proper way to drink tea:

I put precisely half a teaspoon of sugar and a half a cup of milk into my tea. This was just how I liked it—black as tar, a hint of sugar to cut off the bitterness, then enough milk to make it look less like stew. This done, I stirred the concoction clockwise. As soon as experience told me it wouldn't burn my tongue, I took a sip. Perfect. (p. 69)

Matthew, in turn, rhapsodizes about wine "made from grapes picked a long, long time ago. That summer had been hot and sunny, and the farmers worried that the rains were going to come and ruin the crop. But the weather held, and they got the grapes in before the weather changed" (p. 147). He also, of course, rhapsodizes about Diana's odor:

"You smell of willow sap. And chamomile that's been crushed underfoot." He sniffed again and smiled a small, sad smile. "There's honeysuckle and fallen oak leaves, too," he said softly, breathing out, "along with witch hazel blooming and the first narcissus of spring. And ancient things—horehound, frankincense, lady's mantle. Scents I thought I'd forgotten." (pp. 145-6)

Harkness seems to believe that painstaking detail is indistinguishable from poetry. However, when used to describe such pedestrian things—cars and tea and wine—the reader begins to feel as though they have been trapped in a J. Peterman catalog, and the impact of the more potentially moving descriptions (like those of our heroine) are significantly reduced. These hundreds of pages describing yoga dates and tea are fairly mind-numbing, despite (or perhaps because of) the detail involved. Harkness does try to raise the stakes a little; there are occasional conversations about Ashmole, as well as the potential danger of Matthew eating Diana. But the book's true focus is their bland and mild-mannered romance, and all of the conspicuous consumption that surrounds it.

Conditions certainly don't improve once Matthew takes Diana to his family's castle in France. The trip contains everything you might imagine it would: more lavish meals, a trip hunting in the woods (deer, of course, not people. Despite Matthew's apparent predilection for eating them, of course we never see him do so), a fawning live-in who caters to Diana's every need and offers her relationship advice. It's here, too, that A Discovery of Witches takes on a decidedly troubling tone when it comes to the lives and the relationships of women. Harkness borrows a page out of Stephenie Meyer's playbook when she introduces the character of Ysabeau, Matthew's vampire mother who envies Diana not for her youth or beauty but her "ability to bear children" (p. 244). This is yet another supernatural world where jealousy between women—and jealousy over reproductive capacity specifically—is a forgone conclusion.

It's in France that Matthew also begins to act particularly paternalistically, dosing Diana with sedatives, concealing information from her, and marrying her without her consent. In the novel's most troubling interlude, Matthew mentions, casually, that Diana is his wife—and she's obligated to obey him in every way as a member of his "pack." Diana does not question this arrangement. Instead, she seems simply resigned to it: "Given vampires' pack behavior, it wasn't going to be possible to swap obedience to something more progressive" (p. 355).

And yet their arrangement is a completely chaste one. When Diana takes Matthew to bed on her "wedding night," she's a little nervous. After all, she's "never had sex with a vampire before" (p. 358). But Matthew turns her down, and not for any particularly compelling reason: "I keep telling you there's no reason to rush. Modern creatures are always in such a hurry." Diana tells us that she's accustomed to straightforward sex "without needless delay"; with Matthew she "might as well be a virgin" (p. 360). And she remains that way. He teases her, bathes her, undresses her, wines and dines her, even marries her—but he does not fuck her.

A Discovery of Witches seems to be building a strange argument about modern relationships, as well as about modern women. Diana has all the trappings of liberation. She's educated, powerful, and should be interesting in her own right. And yet her interests and desires are subsumed again and again by Matthew's. Self-satisfied, implausibly rich, and controlling, he's every bit the old-fashioned conception of a prince. Through their relationship, Diana is saved from the poverty of academia, the pressures of independent adult decision making—and even from her own supernatural powers.

And that's a shame, because the novel's final section takes place in Diana's American childhood home, a fascinating, witchy place where the rooms are magically rearranged before the arrival of each new guest. Diana's witch aunts are far more interesting characters than any of the posh vampires we encounter, including Matthew himself. Though the trappings here could easily carry a fascinating novel on their own, they're criminally underutilized. This new setting serves simply as yet another place for Matthew and Diana to surreptitiously sneak kisses behind closed doors and beneath magical trees.

Readers who crack open the pages of A Discovery of Witches hoping to find magic, to be captivated by compelling plotting, or to discover the secret of Ashmole 782 will likely be disappointed, as I was. This is not a novel about any of these things. It is, instead, the story of a damsel in distress who is saved—not from any particular danger but from her own independent life—by a wealthy, smarmy prince. Despite all protestations to the contrary.

Phoebe North writes SF for teenagers. An articles editor for Strange Horizons, her short fiction is forthcoming with Aoife's Kiss and Spaceports & Spidersilk. Visit her blog at www.phoebenorth.com.



Phoebe North writes SF for teenagers. Her first book, Starglass, came out in July from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Visit her blog at www.phoebenorth.com.
14 comments on “A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness”

I tried to read this when it first came out but was taken aback by the appallingly bad prose and by the amount of info-dump. I quit after the first few chapters. Great review, Phoebe.

Yikes, so true! Your review brings back everything I felt about this book, and then some! You made a lot of great points here.

Thanks, guys. I really appreciate it. Bad prose and infodumps, indeed!

Funny though -- I did like this novel very much and am looking forward to the next one, which should be out this summer.
Very clever writers, both Harkness and Collins learned a great deal from Meyers, and then put their own strengths on that: Harkness her academic Elizabethan era history of science scholarship, and updating to what an older woman finds romantic and sexy, and Collins her background in writing television and theater.
It's interesting in terms of the history of genre fiction to observe Meyers's books, justly or not so excoriated by so many, justly or not so adored by so many, sparking so much successful spawn -- and not least the E.L Fifty Shades of Grey, which was created out of Twightly fanfic -- and now is also going to be a movie.

Foxessa, I actually have fairly middle-of-the-road feelings about Meyer, particularly the first and second Twilight books (which had their strengths). I was just pointing out a very clear textual similarity, not drawing a qualitative comparison.

Jeff VanderMeer

This review really does a good job of summing up the problems with the novel.

I'm not reading this novel the way you all are, obviously. 🙂 What I'm seeing is a paradigm of meeting someone finally with whom you can explore and become who you really are, instead of spending your life hiding from it. Moreover, their union is hinted to be far important than only their personal lives.
Where I find problems is with the class issues. There are no humans who matter, either to the figures of the non-human categories of sentients, and none of any agency.
This disturbing trend, more and more common in sf/f and superhero action comix, etc. -- its a constant topic in the latest Sherlock series, for instance. But there we've got some really good non-supergeniuses of terrific agency: Watson, Mrs. Hudson, Molly, Lestade.

Lauren

This is a fantastic review, thank you! I'm a little over half-way through and I'm bored and annoyed—Diana, for all her ostensible power and brilliance, is every bit as moony-eyed and acquiescent as Bella—and yet I'll probably see it through. It's become kind of an entertaining hate-read, if you know what I mean. Every time Diana closes her eyes to smell another glass of 300-yr-old wine "like a good student" I want to vom. Also, as you mentioned, why exactly are they so chaste? And why, at 38 years of age, does Diana swoon and flutter over every, er, kiss? Even those "in the French style," which is actually a quote, really shouldn't be affecting her to the same gooey-eyed degree that they did 17-year-old Bella. Diana is 38! And they get married?! And still remain chaste?!? What the what? Finally, why is it that fully-informed characters (in general in mediocre fiction at large and in particular regarding Diana here) are continuously surprised when the things that are supposed to happen actually happen? She comes from incredibly powerful magical parents, which would lead a reasonable person to believe she also possesses natural magical talent, then Matthew shows her the DNA report which (magically?) indicates she has every magical talent possible and a few that are as yet undiscovered, and then the next day she begins to demonstrate these powers (which is, itself, terribly convenient) and is gobsmacked by it every time. Sigh. Thanks again for the review; it was very satisfying for me to read.

Sarah M.

Thank you for recognizing the ridiculousness of the extended flashback and info dump at the beginning of this novel. I am trying to read it for a book club and can barely get through the free sample portion. I don't understand what is captivating so many readers. I just want to take my red pen and slash this thing. Argh. Venting over. Great review, even if it doesn't give much promise for improvement 🙂

Jennifer Chapman

It is really sad to read these reviews. I personally enjoyed it and it shouldn't be compared to Twilight. I love this book!

James

There seem to be two things going on there. First we have a general dumbing down of taste, in which the banal is elevated above all else, and then we have the draining of the horror genre of any possible subversive power.
Vampires, werewolves and the like used to be about a disruption of normalcy, monsters in our midst, etc.
Now they serve as a chaste enforcement of normalacy (materialisim, conspicuous consumption, pg-rated teen romance, etc).
Twilight set the bar low, "I Found Some Witches" just continues this sad trend.

James

There seem to be two things going on there. First we have a general dumbing down of taste, in which the banal is elevated above all else, and then we have the draining of the horror genre of any possible subversive power.
Vampires, werewolves and the like used to be about a disruption of normalcy, monsters in our midst, etc.
Now they serve as a chaste enforcement of normalacy (materialisim, conspicuous consumption, pg-rated teen romance, etc).
Twilight set the bar low, "I Found Some Witches" just continues this sad trend.

Audrey

"—Diana, for all her ostensible power and brilliance, is every bit as moony-eyed and acquiescent as Bella—"
Lauren- thank you for perfectly summing up my main issue with this book. My hopes were high that Diana would be a strong, self-sufficient heroine, but I was sadly disappointed.

Tamara

You leave crucial things out. There is a huge mystery over Diana's parents and the context of their death. Then Diana has a real struggle with her powers having ignored them up to now. She turns out very strong - escaping from the witch Satu for instance.
And she saves Matthew's life giving him her blood.
In Book 2 the development of Diana's powers continues ... and the marriage is consummated.
The only thing I agree with Phoebe is that the flashbacks at the start get a bit boring and are too long.
But overall this is a fantastic series and I look forward to Book 3. I am sure Diana comes out well.

 

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