Review: A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

In the opening pages of A Discovery of Witches Yale history professor Diana Bishop, on a summer research trip to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, encounters a 17th-century alchemical manuscript sealed by magic. Descended from a long line of powerful witches, Diana can feel the powerful spell at work as soon as she touches the book.

Despite her surprise at receiving an enchanted volume from the Bodleian’s stacks, her trepidation at what might happen if she opens it, and her unwillingness to use her inborn magical ability, Diana doesn’t simply return the book to the call desk. No, that would be too easy. Despite the possibility that the book, once opened, may be trouble, Diana opens it anyway–and yes, trouble (and the plot) ensues.

I don’t know how many times I picked A Discovery of Witches up, In the months following its February release, looked at it–and put it back, unbought. On the surface, it looks like the kind of novel I’d eat up with a spoon. Academic setting? Check. Historical mystery? Check. Magic existing in a contemporary setting, yet unseen and unrecognized by normal people? Check. Over 400 pages? Check. It’s like a recipe for my favorite flavor of literary crack. But despite all that, I didn’t cave in and buy it until early June, and once I got it home it sat unread for nearly two months.

I mean, look–I snapped up Lev Grossman’s The Magicians last year without a flicker of hesitation. I didn’t even bother to finish reading the dust jacket flap; I just knew immediately that it was a novel that could have been custom-written to my tastes (and it exceeded all my expectations). I’m even counting down the days (three!) until the release of the sequel, The Magician King. I also picked up Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf (and reviewed it last week), despite not being a “dog person”–I simply had an odd hunch that it would be worth reading, followed it, and was rewarded with a howling good time.

I’ve got this odd, intuitive book-sense, in other words. It’s an uncanny knack for picking up on which books will be good and which will…not. And I really should have listened to that book-sense each time I picked up A Discovery of Witches and debated whether to buy it, because, like Diana Bishop, I seemed to know just by touching the cover that it was going to be–well, okay, not trouble. Just a massive goddamned disappointment.

If I could only harp on one of this novel’s many flaws, the writing style would be as good a start as any. It’s just awful. And annoying. And (as long as I’m being alliterative) amateurish.

Anyone who has ever taken a creative writing class, or bought a book on How to Write a Novel has heard the old advice, “Show, don’t tell.” Well, apparently Deborah Harkness has either never heard that advice, or has simply failed to understand what it means, because seriously, kids, this book is stuffed full of telling.  Harkness, perhaps in an effort to make sure there is absolutely no ambiguity, no mistaking her intentions, and no room for failure to get her point on the reader’s part, Spells Shit Out. Through her narrator, Diana, Harkness makes sure you get every last speck of information you might need, often well in advance of any actual need to know it. On top of that, she includes masses of redundant or needless information that serves absolutely no worthwhile narrative purpose.

The result is a narrative that moves at a breathtakingly glacial pace. It’s storytelling on a geologic timescale. Interminable was the word that kept coming to mind as I struggled to keep reading.

Halfway through this 579-page novel, I sat down and wrote a list of things that had actually happened in the narrative–specific events that advanced the plot–and the list took only half a page and eight bullet points. A Discovery of Witches is so bloated with needless exposition and other narrative dead weight, and so thin on actual plot, a skilled writer could have easily brought it in at well under 300 pages. It’s essentially a 280-page book, crammed to the gills with drinking tea, eating, bathing, relating every last detail of Diana’s family history, attending yoga class, rowing, describing each item of Diana’s academi-dull wardrobe in turn every time she gets dressed, describing her controlling vampire boyfriend’s sweaters, drinking wine, sleeping, going horseback riding, getting her many wounds fussed over and tended to, struggling to control her bad hair, being herded around and ordered about by her controlling vampire boyfriend, taking naps, and sitting in the Bodleian for days on end, doing some sort of hazily-described research work with unspecified manuscripts.

Which brings me to another critical flaw in the book: as a narrator, and as character, Diana Bishop is a complete bore. She shouldn’t be; she’s a witch, who comes from a long and distinguished lineage (albeit a hopelessly cliched one, founded by an ancestor executed at Salem, for crying out loud), and despite her wholly-unbelievable refusal to use her powers she is at least part of a magical world existing, largely-unseen, alongside the “human” one. She’s also a historian, and such a genius she’s already a fully-tenured Yale professor at the tender age of 34. She ought to be interesting, right?

But we only know these things about Diana because Harkness has told us, in all those tedious, momentum-killing blocks of exposition. What Harkness inadvertently shows, however is a woman who has very little going on in her head besides making a perfect cup of tea, excercizing, picking out a clean pair of black pants (or worse, leggings) to wear, and mooning like a lovestruck teenager over her controlling vampire boyfriend.  Other characters frequently tell her she’s brave, but only in the last quarter of the book is this remotely convincing–the rest of the time she’s merely spunky, stubborn, and clueless to the point of idiocy.

As for Diana’s alleged brilliance as a historian, Harkness (a history professor herself) undermines this portrayal when Diana seeks clues to her controlling vampire boyfriend’s inner life by perusing his heavily-annotated copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Now, this wouldn’t be a problem–except the annotations were made 150 years earlier, in a first edition of Origin (inscribed by Darwin himself, natch). And okay, I’m just a history grad school dropout, but I know damned well that the only insight she was going to get was what her controlling vampire boyfriend was thinking 150 years before. I mean hello? Context?

And then there’s Matthew Clairmont, Diana’s controlling vampire boyfriend. He sneaks in her window and watches her sleep. He tells her when to eat, and orders her to go to bed. He constantly bosses her around and micromanages her life, all in the name of keeping her “safe,” and she goes along with it. He loves the way she smells. He’s almost as boringly dressed as she is. He takes her home to meet his vampire family (with its unexamined patriarchal power structure). Their vamp-witch love is so forbidden, OMG. And because he’s such an honorably-intentioned guy, and doesn’t want to kill her, he’ll let her cuddle next to his stone-cold self–but he won’t fuck her, no matter how willing she is, even after he’s started referring to her as his wife.

Jesus Fucking Christ. It’s fucking Twilight fanfiction. No, really. Goddamn it. And I actually spent money on this stupid, stupid book? Shoot me now.

Matthew Clairmont is a neuroscientist and geneticist at Oxford, and, like Diana, allegedly a genius. He’s also 1500 years old. And you would think, wouldn’t you, that after 1500 years one might acquire a bit of wisdom, a smattering of insight into human nature, and just a wee bit of perspective? You’d think, perhaps, that one might reach a Zen-like level of detachment (if not outright enlightenment), having fully realized–through firsthand experience–the impermanence of all things? And maybe you’d go so far as to think that one might no longer suffer deep grief and guilt at losses incurred centuries before, because given enough of it, time really does heal all wounds?

Ha! No! Wrong. Or at least according to Harkness’s imaginings. For Matthew is short-tempered, peevish, thin-skinned, and has a reputation around Oxford for being rude and dismissive towards women. He’s pushy, obnoxious, and unabashedly controlling in his interactions with Diana. He still grieves for his 1500-years-dead wife and infant son. There is nothing about his character to suggest he is any older than 37 (the age he was when he was “reborn” a vamp), and frankly, if I met a mortal 37-year-old who acted like Matthew I’d tell him to grow the fuck up and get over himself.

He’s kind of like Edward Cullen (with a hefty dollop of Carlisle), crossed with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, now that I think of it. And Diana Bishop is…Deborah Harkness as an older, blonde, less depressed and self-loathing (but equally unstylish) Bella Swan. And really, that’s the only way the whole Diana-Matthew romance makes any sense at all: the author’s favorite Twilight-inspired romantic daydreams, committed to print.

[looks at the word count]


Look, I hated this book. It’s tedious and stupid, the villains are such flimsy cardboard cut-outs they make Lord Voldemort look as nuanced as like Hannibal Lecter (though to be fair to JK Rowling she also gave us Dolores Umbridge, one of the most ghastly villains ever written), the romance is patently unbelievable, and the academic-intellectual aspects are scarcely more than set dressing. And for a story that relies so much on magic, it is frustratingly mundane and un-magical.

I’m embarrassed that I spent money on it (even if I did buy it at Costco). So now that I’ve vented my spleen here, I’m hustling it down to the nearest used bookstore to offload it and thus recoup a few bucks (or listen to my book-sense and buy a better book). Yes, cats and kittens, IT’S THAT BAD. So bad, I want it out of my house.

I’m also annoyed that it’s the first book in a trilogy, and that there will be two more doorstoppy volumes of tea-drinking and sleeping and eating and drinking wine and getting dressed and obsessive immortal-adolescent forbidden love to plow through–in the unlikely event I decide to see if the promise of more interesting things to come plays out.

Because here’s the sad thing about A Discovery of Witches: In the last quarter of it, Diana returns to her childhood home in upstate New York, seeking answers about her murdered parents–and her own past–from the aunts who raised her. While there, she begins to reclaim her birthright as a witch by learning to use her inborn powers. There is one scene in particular–when she’s walking around outside, with her eyes closed, attempting to sense Matthew’s location by her magical senses alone, that hints at what this book could have been. The writing is still flawed, but there’s real magic in that scene, the kind that was last seen way back in the very first chapter.  And in the final chapters, Diana actually starts to become interesting. Instead of other characters telling her (despite the evidence) that she was brave, I actually started to see it in her myself. Even Matthew starts to become less annoying and less controlling as Diana comes into her power.

There is promise for much better to come, in those final chapters. But, truth be told, it’s far too little, far too late, and that little glimmering promise of real magic is nowhere near enough to overcome Harkness’s fatal weaknesses as a storyteller. I had to force myself to keep reading in order to get through A Discovery of Witches and I’m just not willing to face more of the same. So for me, the series ends here.

Next week’s review:

I haven’t picked a book yet, but it will probably be nonfiction, and definitely be something that gives me no cause to slag on Twilight. I promise.