REVIEW: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

With a new Sky adaptation coming very soon to UK televisions and promises that this book is a brighter, more grown up version of Twilight, I had to pick up a copy of A Discovery of Witches. I’m not sure if this hasn’t been as big in the UK as it has in the US, but until seeing the advert for the new series I hadn’t actually heard of A Discovery of Witches. 

However, my Buffy the Vampire, Twilight, Vampire Diaries, Harry Potter loving teen self insisted I give this new, grown up take on vampiric fantasy a go. Particularly as the blurb reminded me of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova which is one of my all time favourite novels.

Before starting to read I had a few concerns. About two years or so ago I tried rereading Twilight as part of an exercise on my creative writing MA that suggested going back and reading a book you loved as a teenager. Of course I hated Twilight on rereading and wondered what on earth I was thinking – however on rewatching some Vampire Diaries, I still love that…

Also, I’m not a huge fantasy fan these days. Die hard Harry Potter fan, yes, but I very much read crime, literary, travel memoir and thrillers these days. I have been wanting to give some classic fantasy a try (I’m unsure how I have got this far in life without giving Lord of the Rings a read) and so it seemed a good place to start.

A Discovery of Witches is set in a world very similar to our own but with one major difference – witches, vampires and daemons exist and their histories are interwoven with our own. This novel uses historical and scientific facts to create a plausible magical world that underlies our own.

Diana Bishop is a hard working academic currently working in Oxford. She just so happens to be a witch but she has refused to use her powers to better her career. One day, on the eve of a Wiccan festival, she refuses to join her fellow witches in celebrations and ends up working on a mysterious manuscript instead. By stumbling upon this bewitched manuscript, Diana uncovers a dark secret and sets into motion a series of frightening events.

I really enjoyed the premise of this novel although I’m not sure I can say it is wholly original. I think bringing something new to a magical version of the modern world is tricky – as the review snippets on the books cover which link the story to Twilight and Hard Potter show.

I found Diana to be a problematic protagonist for a number of reasons and here I will warn that I might let slip a few spoilers although I’ll try my best not to give anything too major away!

Diana is an academic from America who lives alone in Oxford and has a very successful career. However, she is constantly made the victim in this book and perhaps this is difficult to digest as a reader in the post-me-too age, but I just can’t understand why she allows herself to be bossed about throughout the whole novel. When she starts a relationship with vampire, Matthew Clairmont, she goes along with his instructions and literally does as she is told, barely seeming to think for herself other than to worry about Matthew’s feelings.

I found the idea that an intelligent woman who studies the history of science wouldn’t want to know about her own magic powers of the history of her people strange. I also find it odd that she doesn’t realise when she is using magic. This gives her a childish quality that just grated on me by the end of the book.

I also found a lot of the dialogue throughout the book clunky, cliched and unnatural. I know that Matthew is supposed to be speaking as someone who is from another era, but Diana isn’t. I thought the ‘romantic’ scenes were also really cringeworthy and uncomfortable.

The ending too was disappointing as it is obviously set up for the next book, fitting this novel into yet another trope of the genre – a trilogy.

I did want to know more and I was intrigued by the interweaving of real history with fantasy, however the characters were too cliched and the story too protracted to really hold my attention. I will still be watching the show as I suspect that this is an idea which will be better displayed on screen (shocking, I know) and I would be curious to know how the rest of the story plays out.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of this novel, but it just dragged on too long and became too unrealistic so that I found myself just wanting to know what happened rather than feeling invested in the characters and their emotions.

Perhaps it seems strange to say that a fantasy novel no longer felt real however what I mean is that with books like Harry Potter I believe those characters and the world created enough that I believe in the magic and the curses and the creatures. In this book I didn’t believe in the characters let alone in the magic.

Let me know if I’m crazy or if you agree with me and whether I should give the rest of the series a read!


One Comment Add yours

  1. Ova says:

    You’re not the person that says it was too long! My friend finished it a while ago and that was her impression.
    Great review!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s