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A Discovery of Witches

Posted by Vanessa On Thursday, March 03, 2011

Debut author Deborah Harkness has been on my 'to read' list since her appearance at New York's ComicCon fantasy author panel with the likes of Peter V. Brett, Naomi Novik, Brandon Sanderson, Jim Butcher, and Joe Abercrombie. Yeah, a newb sitting amongst some of the most popular fantasy authors today. I had to know if she deserved being there.

In A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES Harkness takes all the urban fantasy romantic tropes and...uses them. Main PoV character Diana is smart, orphaned, stubborn, beautiful-though-she-doesn't-know-it, and a powerful witch. Her vampire love interest Matthew is almost perfectly thoughtful, impeccably dressed, brilliant, rich, and well connected. The antagonists resent their blossoming romance because vampires and witches 'just don't mix' (Really! It's never happened before!). There's the trendy locales (Oxford, France, upstate New York), the wine/books/artifacts only a centuries old vampire could have, the tension between the supernatural races. If you've read your share of urban fantasy, you've seen all this many times over.

The issue isn't that Harkness uses these tropes over again--they are tried and true for a reason--it's that it's her first novel and you can tell. Her foreshadowing lacks subtlety. Last-minute contrivances fix issues. Too much time is spent on the minutiae of eating/traveling/clothing. Expository conversations are used to forward the plot. And the plot itself is bogged down with irrelevant information. You know, the kinds of things any Writing Excuses episode would explain are problems because they affect flow and readability.

But do these problems ruin the story?

For most urban fantasy readers, those are issues that won't impede their enjoyment of the love story. However, while I enjoyed Harkness' blending of ideas and the magic, even if they aren't exactly groundbreaking, the execution made it hard for me to enjoy it on a level that would make me give an unhesitating endorsement.

The story starts off with a problem: Why does everyone want Ashmole 782? Diana is a Ph.D. in history, an expert on alchemical texts, and during her research at Oxford she finds a text that has been missing for 150 years. She can tell it's special because it fires off all her witch's senses. But she's here as a scholar and not a witch, so sends it back, where it disappears again. Now every vampire, witch, and daemon in Oxford wants to know how she got it to appear and if she's going to do it again. Because its hidden text supposedly explains the origin of paranormal creatures--and perhaps even how to destroy them forever.

During Diana's research, Matthew Clairmont appears. He's mysterious and attractive, but he's a vampire. He's a scientist at heart, who wants to not only know the how but also the why. He claims to want to help Diana, and is interested in Ashmole 782, but his altruistic intentions are suspect. Diana, against her better judgment, is drawn into Matthew's circle of protection. The other witches don't want anyone but another witch to ever obtain Ashmole 782, and see Diana's vampire-trusting behavior as a betrayal.

Then the dots start connecting: the death of her parents, the meaning of the text, the motives of witches and vampires who are trying to keep Diana and Matthew apart. Harkness blends history, magic, science and alchemy into a story that sucks you in despite its awkward pace--because, really, you don't know where Harkness is heading with all this and you are compelled to know.

Harkness's prose is easy enough to read, and she handles the magic well, including the separation of the supernatural races, and even the 'science' of their behaviors. Even though some of it seems to be for convenience's sake (i.e., vampires awake and walking around during the day; their meeting being 'fate'). My favorite part of the entire book is the sentient house where Diana's witch Aunt Sarah lives. It creates new rooms for guests, has temper tantrums, and hides/reveals things at the appropriate times.

The love story between the main characters is a strangely mixed bag of reality and contrivance. I wanted to want to see them together, and they seem to fit together as a couple personality-wise, but the execution made Matthew creepy and Diana wishy-washy. Matthew is an over-protective control freak and Diana is a 30-something Ph.D. who devolves into a lovestruck teen, which made me kind of embarrassed for my sex. It doesn't help, either, that it only takes them a few weeks to decide this is True Love Forever.

While I was eventually able to enjoy the main characters, and even the plethora of secondary characters that are important in Diana and Matthew's lives, I couldn't get around the meandering storyline. Certainly there's forward movement as they fall in love, travel, and unravel the mysteries of Ashmole 782, but I look back and there's just so much fluff. I spent 500+ pages reading to remember all these details (historical, alchemical, etc), only to have them mean nothing to the story. If you asked me, I don't think I could pinpoint the exact climax of the novel (I think it was around the 2/3 mark, which is an awkward spot); then the last third of the novel devolves into a meandering buildup for an event that leads into what's obviously going to be a sequel. I guess we'll have to see if she improves with subsequent novels.

Recommended Age: 16+ for sexuality
Language: Fewer than five instances
Violence: Not much beyond a hazy torture scene and some peril
Sex: One detailed scene and plenty of implied scenes and conversations


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