A Discovery of Witches is a Decent First Novel

BlogHer Review

Set primarily in three physical locations (Oxford, Britain; near Lyon, France; Madison, New York), yet throughout history via manuscripts and anecdotes, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness is a mildly entertaining first novel for the reasons outlined below. The protagonist, Diana, is a witch born to two witches who have “too much power” (pg. 7). Her mother is described as special and that “by the time she was in grade school, she could out-magic most of the senior witches” (pg. 4). Diana makes a vow early in her life that she will not use her magic often that presumably lasts until the time in which the story is set. In the interim, she becomes a tenured professor at Yale and is currently studying alchemy in Oxford. In the very first chapter, she calls up a manuscript called Ashmole 782, a one-of-a-kind alchemical manuscript that has been lost in time. The discovery of and content of Ashmole 782 becomes the overarching storyline.

In the second chapter, Diana meets biochemist (and so much more) Matthew with whom by the seventh chapter she has already had a date and by the ninth chapter we learn he is in love with her. Talk about moving fast when there are forty-three total chapters! Diana and Matthew fall head-over-heels for each other and have to carefully navigate their cultural differences since Matthew is a vampire. Yes. Now we have a (to-be-discovered) powerful witch born to two powerful witches, at least one of which is prodigal, and a vampire who is very, very old and lusts after her body and blood. Neither of these is the least bit overdone… (yes, that’s tongue-in-cheek.) …but keep reading. It’s not all bad.

Deborah Harkness weaves interesting historical events and documents throughout A Discovery of Witches, but she ultimately misses the mark on entertainment until page 376 (of 579). It was then that my attention was caught as I mused What is Diana’s secret? Could she possibly be a genetic throwback? Is she all three creatures -- daemon, witch, and vampire -- in one? Sadly, I don’t think that the secret is anything as grand as that; however, it was at this point that I began eagerly flipping the pages of this book. What possibly could be Diana’s secret?

This eagerness continued until the last page of the book where I leaned back with a sigh and pondered the ending. Cliffhanger. Cliffhanger. Cliffhanger. On one hand I really like cliffhangers because it makes me eager to read the next book. On the other hand, I really dislike cliffhangers because they seem like such a cheap shot. However, I am still going to look for the second book of this trilogy and read it because I have an obsessive need to find out all the secrets and I didn’t find the book onerous. It’s just a little light and fluffy; there is nothing wrong with that!

In the end, as I look over the entire book and my notes (eight pages of them), I’m left with a pleasant not not stunning experience. I’m glad I read it, but I wouldn’t put it on the same level as a Jacqueline Carey or George R. R. Martin. One thing that I found very striking was the excellent description of tastes and smells. This makes more sense to me after I looked at the author’s website about the book and discovered she runs an award-winning blog about wine. I bet she’s gotten a lot of practice describing tastes through her site. I also have to give Ms. Harkness a large amount of kudos for writing a book in which a lesbian couple is completely normal and comes with no disclaimers. Thank you. I hate to remark on it, since I shouldn’t have to, but thank you.

Mild Spoilers!!

Oh! Before I finish here – are you wondering what “vampire” means in this book? I was. I jotted down some notes. Vampires don’t need an invitation to enter a residence. They don’t burst into flames in sunlight. They don’t have fangs. They don’t read minds. They are very quick. They drink blood, but can eat some food. They don’t enjoy eating cooked food as the smell is nauseating. Vampires are sensitive to adrenaline in others. They have scars, heal fast, but still feel pain. They can die. They are cold to the touch and gorgeous. They have an intense sense of smell, sight, and hearing.

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