I Hoped For More From A Discovery of Witches
Before I opened the book, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness seemed like it would be right up my fantasy-lovin' alley. Vampires, witches, a mystery involving a manuscript found in the Bodleian library at Oxford -- the book seemed like it might have been written to please me.
And then I read it. All 579 pages of it.
To be fair, if I'd read this as a YA librarian checking out a new Young Adult offering, it might have pleased me more. In general, I'm more willing to overlook clumsy point-of-view shifts, information dumps, and plotting problems if I think the storyline will appeal to teenagers; teens don't tend to be as picky about technical issues or erratically veering plotlines as most adult readers. But this is not a YA book, or at least it's not being marketed as a YA book, (nor as a romance book, which is another genre where I'm willing to make allowances as a reviewing librarian for poor writing if the storyline is compelling.) Unfortunately, A Discovery of Witches is marketed as adult fiction, and it simply didn't hold my interest as an adult reader.
Aside from the technical issues I had with the narrator's point-of-view skipping from person to person within a single scene (something that seems more commonly accepted now than it used to be. When it's done well, I don't notice it; but when it's done poorly, it can ruin a passage by throwing me out of the story & forcing me to pay attention to the storytelling), I also had a hard time with the story itself -- as the book progressed, the plot made no sense at times, and at other times, I felt as though the author simply wasn't sure what story she wanted to tell. Was it a paranormal romance? A mystery? A metaphoric exploration of love between members of different societal groups?
I kept waiting for Ms. Harkness to turn the tropes to which she was slavishly adhering on their heads -- surely the handsome, wonderful, brilliant, noble vampire who's too good to be true will be just that, yes? Surely we'll see a bit of psychological complexity in a creature who's 1500 years old? No. He really WAS that good, that perfect, that wonderful. Surely our heroine will have some serious personality flaws which might present themselves along the way, yes? No. She really WAS amazing in every way, and even her casually mentioned flaws were explained away as strengths by the end of the book. Even the vampire's scary mother was comforting and maternally protective as soon as she realized her son really was in love. Every 'good' character was too-good-to-be-true, and every 'bad' character was operating at a mwa-ha-ha level of evil, which I found tiresome and dull. I want my adult books - even fantasies, no, especially fantasies! - to be complex and challenging, just like adult life is.
Ultimately, for a book that tried to address the big issues -- love, desire, blood ties vs. friendship, overcoming prejudice, etc. -- it ended up giving short shrift to all other ideas in order to concentrate on a plodding romance, and at a whopping 579 pages, that's inexcusable. The author is a historian, and by far the best parts of the book were her details about Oxford college, about alchemical manuscripts, about the intricacies (and occasional inanities!) of scholarly research and publication competition. However, the interest generated by glimpses into the academic world ultimately wasn't enough to rescue it from feeling derivative of other books in the now-popular sub-genre of vampire romance, specifically, YA vampire romance. And I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to a typical YA reader -- the romance was mild, the violence muted, and the storyline easy to follow. A YA reader who prefers to be challenged might have many of the same problems I did with the book, but it would probably fill up that Twilight shaped hole in a 14-year-old's summer beach reading quite nicely if she doesn't mind reading about a teacher-aged heroine instead of a student-aged one.
This is the first book in what is promised to be a larger body of work, and while I won't rush out to buy the next one, I will probably check it out at the library to see if the author's managed to rescue the series' by giving it some compelling dramatic (adult!) conflict now that she's gotten her first novel (and the lead-up to that never-ending romance!) out of her system. Here's what I'm hoping for: More conflict and less tea-drinking; more library mysteries and less wine-tasting; more story and less love-talk, please, Ms. Harkness!