My Haunted Library

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Review: A Discovery of Witches

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A Discovery of Witches —Deborah Harkness, 2011. Rating 4/5

Repressed witch and historian, Dr. Diana Bishop, recalls a lost manuscript from the Bodleian Library, falls in love with a vampire, and sets off a war between supernatural species in A Discovery of Witches.

Diana has rejected her witchy family heritage. She fears her own magical powers after her parents—both powerful witches—were killed for their abilities. She’s making her way through the scholarly world like a lowly human: on her own merits. She is a tenured Yale professor and respected author specializing ancient chemistry, or alchemy. Diana is the first person to find Ashmole 782, the bespelled manuscript, in over a century. Diana is suddenly approached by evil witches (who inform Diana they killed her parents); spacey, creative daemons; and Matthew Clairmont, a devastatingly handsome vampire. Matthew is a geneticist, scholar, wine connoisseur, and yoga maven. All of these creatures want Ashmole 782, or at least want Diana, who seems to be the key to the book.

Matthew and Diana fall in love immediately, share dinners, lots of wine, and yoga classes, and when threats of violence ramp up against Diana, Matthew takes her to his exquisite ancestral château in France. There she rides horses, channels the goddess Diana, and navigates chilly conversations with Matthew’s elegant mother, Ysabeau. Diana has the most magical potential Matthew has ever encountered. She still refuses to use her magic, but it begins to bubble out anyway. Diana pays for her helplessness when she’s kidnapped by bad witches and vampires. Matthew insists they visit Diana’s feisty Aunt Sarah in New York, so she can teach Diana how to use her powers. Along the way, Diana and Matthew learn that Ashmole 782 potentially explains the origins and evolutionary future of witches, vampires, and daemons.

O.k. A Discovery of Witches rocketed to fame and inspired a British TV series and countless fan sites. I am not in the rabid fan category. I read the book when it was first released, liked it well enough, and had occasion to read it again recently for a project. I like it less, now. Here are my thoughts. Overall, I enjoyed the book. I liked the fantasy world-view Harkness creates: the uniqueness of the three different magical species, at odds with each other and governed by an outdated covenant. I enjoyed the wine, food, and travel, and I appreciate a tall, dark, handsome vampire as much as the next person. I loved the detailed descriptions of Oxford and Sept-Tours. I relished the literary and historical allusions. Who knew that Ashmole 782 is real manuscript from the collection of Elias Ashmole that truly is missing from the Bodleian? I appreciated the occasional wry bits of humor.

I was deeply frustrated with Diana’s character and what I view as her hypocrisy. Matthew straight-up tells Diana that vampires are protective and possessive. Diana knows this. Yet she spends the bulk of the (very, very long) book complaining about his controlling, protective behavior. She declares she can take care of herself, thank you very much—but she clearly cannot and needs Matthew to protect her…over and over. Plus, Diana likes being protected and cosseted and tucked into bed and deposited in the bath. She keeps touting her independence yet does everything Matthew tells her to and accepts the fact that now that they’re married (with a kiss) she will just have to follow his alpha dog orders. Diana has only known the guy for 40 days, and she has essentially tossed away the career she spent her life building. Hmmpf. So, those are some big issues. That, and the large fact that nothing much actually happens in book. Oh, and that you’re left with an ending like The Empire Strikes Back (but without the dramatic, breath-catching cliffhanger aspect). Here you’re left more with a feeling of grumpy irresolution, and the sense that you’ve been suckered into reading the second book.

It worked. I was irritated enough by the ending of A Discovery of Witches to read the second in the series, Shadow of Night.

A pause while I consider how to continue honestly but tactfully.

Keeping in mind that I love fantasy, supernatural, and historical fiction, book two was still a slog. It is also nearly 600 pages in which very little happens—again—and it frustrated me enough that while I have the final series title, The Book of Life, I haven’t read it. Someday, maybe. I’ll reign myself in here: In short, A Discovery of Witches is a generally enjoyable read that almost falls into the cozy-category. Ignore the heroine’s self-esteem issues, if possible, and you’ll be entertained with some interesting history, an engaging concept, and a pleasant light romance.

rating system four crows

Author: Jennifer

I have a long history in libraries! I put myself through school working in public libraries in Boulder and Austin. I got my second Master's to become a "real" librarian and worked in public, private and most recently school libraries in Carson City, Boulder and Denver. I have a passion for books and writing, and clearly, the paranormal. I love to read, bake, bike, kickbox, watch scary movies, play video games, and play with my dogs!

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