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.