While reading through A Discovery of Witches, I confess, I couldn't help but compare it to Twilight. That being said, most of those comparisons consisted of, "This is what Twilight should have been." They share some of the same elements, chiefly a romance involving a powerful male vampire, but where Twilight stays firmly entrenched in the land of teenyboppers, this romance is of a more mature variety. If mature intelligent adults want to fantasize about a vampire romance that's not caught up in being dark, edgy, or 'big-city' modern, this is the way to go about it!
Unlike the bulk of urban fantasy, the characters here are not hip, on the edge of fashion, incredibly popular, or filled with woes about their latest crush or how their job isn't fun. They're professionals, mostly researchers, and they come across as people who have made peace with themselves. Even the main character, Diana, who in many ways has not actually made peace with herself and her magical heritage, still understands who she is, is comfortable with herself as a person, and is refreshingly more focused on research papers than parties, scholarship more than socializing. She's the kind of character I look at and say to myself, "I want to be just like her," and I can relate to her because she isn't what so many urban fantasy heroines are. She isn't young, pretty, and modern. She's dedicated, fairly quiet, and interested in academia.
The research that the author put into this novel shows. Harkness has definitely done her homework when it comes to alchemy, genetics, location, culture, history, and, unsurprisingly, wine. While occasionally imparting all this information borders on breaking the "show, don't tell" rule of writing, honestly, I can't imagine another way that it could have all been presented in a way that makes sense both to the reader and in the way that the characters are explaining. Harkness evidently spent a good amount of time asking all the right questions (for example, if vampires have extra chromosomes, just how do they get them when they came from human stock?) and finding good answers to them that make sense. I learned a good deal while reading this, and moreover, I also experienced that mental shift that comes with asking your own questions and trying to figure out the answers about things you may never have considered before.
Harkness weaves a wonderful mystery, dropping hints in all the right places and tying things together very smoothly. She can make things sexy without being graphic, and make academia sound far more exciting than it probably has any rights to be. (At least for those who aren't total bibliophiles, that is!) Her style is wonderful, flowing nicely along and carrying the reader across time and pages to a place where they won't want to leave. This is one author well worth keeping an eye on, and I'm very excited for the next book of the series. This comes highly recommended; do not miss your chance to read this one!
on March 9, 2011
I took this off my local library shelf due to the very pretty cover and was pleasantly surprised by the story. It is very well written and researched, and I wasn't surprised to read in the author's bio that she is a history professor. In fact, in addition to introducing us to a world of vampires, witches and daemons, she also gives up a peak into the world of academia (perhaps an even stranger and more unique place). The strengths of this story are in the rich detail, the interesting historical references and the original world building. One of the weaknesses was a one dimensional main character- I began to find her annoying and really wished she would just "get over it" by the middle of the book. There was also an awkward switching between the first-person narrative of the protagonist to the third-person narrative of the vampire. Finally, the book seemed to meander along with a few mildly exciting events punctuating a pretty drawn out story. There really didn't seem to be a climax, and the last few chapters seemed to lead up to nothing. Despite this, I am looking forward to the next book and will certainly get on the hold list at the library (though I'm not excited enough to buy it in hardcover).
on February 21, 2011
First things first -- if you're looking for a teenage vampire romance, or a re-hash of Harry Potter, this is not the book for you.
A Discovery of Witches is a fresh, intelligent, rich, and detailed re-imagining of our mundane world to include four kinds of people: humans and the so-called "creatures" known as vampires, witches and daemons, where interrelations between the "creature" species is forbidden by an ancient Covenant. But the Covenant's balance of power is only as strong as the creatures' commitment to maintaining that balance. And that balance is threatened by the raw power contained within a reluctant witch, those who desire to possess her power for their own gain, and the love of an ancient vampire.
The tale has the intellectual, detective aspects reminiscent of the DaVinci Code. It has the political and strategic aspects of a complex chess game, with creatures poised on the brink of war placing their pieces in complex plans and strategems. And it tells the story of a deep, forbidden love between an ancient vampire and a witch of great power, a love that is tested by those who would stop at nothing to preserve the ancient Covenant and possess the witch's power.
The book has the feeling of a classic epic: rich in depth, complexity and detail, all of which are interwoven into a larger tapestry which we can only see a small piece of in this novel (the story just begs for another two books in the series).
And all throughout, the author asks the question, "Is what we see in this world all there really is?" I was swept away by the author's imaginative answer. And as soon as I finished the book, I wanted to start reading it all over again.
If I could, I'd give A Discovery of Witches 6 stars. It is an engaging, intelligent and satisfying read, far above the pulp fiction being churned out in the genre today. I eagerly and impatiently await the next chapter.
on April 25, 2013
If I remember correctly, I bought this book about 4 months after it was published, mainly because the abstract attracted me. I had truly enjoyed the “Harry Potter” series and I must admit that I had (and still have) a soft spot for the “Twilight” saga.
The author has built here a well balanced mixture of fantasy, romance, history and suspense by focusing mainly on the mysterious alchemy manuscript that is Ashmole 782. Her story is beautifully written and includes a lot of details that helps the reader immerse him/herself into the story. I particularly enjoyed her well researched historical description as well as the description she makes of Oxford and its campus and libraries. It felt has if I was there instead of here when I read those. I felt committed to the story. Until...
Until, I advanced further into the story and realized that it tended to resemble more and more an adult version of Twilight. At first it didn't truly bother me that much; should the author have adapted the love story and sensual details to the fact that her two main characters are in their mid-thirties, it would have probably been fine. The problem is that she didn't which makes this part of the plot sound unrealistic and a tad bit too cheesy.
As for the characters, I found that the author’s strength lied mainly with her supporting characters (such as Marcus, Ysabeau, Sarah and Emily) more that with Diana and Matthew, who are her mains characters.
All in all, a dense book where immersing yourself remains a possibility as long as you’re able to live with the occasional lack of realism of the two main characters.
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There was much about A Discovery of Witches that I wanted to like. The concepts were fantastic - Harkness creates a rich world of witches, vampires and daemons, of magic and science, visions of the future and influences from the past.
She pins all of this down on two characters, Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont, a witch and a vampire, a historian and a scientist. This was an unfortunate choice. Diana is not capable of holding up her end of the story. As a noted academic with a tenured position at a young age, Diana frequently fails to live up to that intellectual hype. She does fine with books, but when trying to memorize a spell late in the book, she forgets the words and confesses to having a short attention span. Really? I mean, come on. I know that this is a witch who, though she a HUGE affinity for magic, isn't supposed to be very good at it in the conventional sense, but... really? She can't remember? She can't focus? At least explain those two character inconsistencies away with some kind of magical contrivance, please.
Diana is also prevented or excluded from having much control/input in the plot unfolding in this, and what I presume will be the series (rest of the trilogy?) to follow. For an independent, intellectual woman, she's pretty content to let everyone else in her life make decisions about the future. I found this irritating in the extreme. It's one thing to trust the experts, but its another to sit back and let all the planning happen without your input or awareness.
And while I found Matthew to be overbearing at times, at least this as keeping with his character.
This book is heavy on exposition, trying to fill in back stories and establish interpersonal histories that go back hundreds of years. If I hadn't liked the concepts so much, there's no way I would have made it to the end of the book.
Suitable if you've run out of other things to read, or are curious about the hype, but don't have high expectations.
I'm an omnivorous reader and eschew the snobbery against page-turners. After all, the minority of books that achieve classic status often comes from the ranks of the bestsellers. As for the majority of page-turners...well, what's wrong with fun? I'd like to ask the author of A Discovery of Witches that question. Deborah Harkness teaches history at the University of Southern California, with a specialty in alchemical texts, but it's obvious she's read her Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer. And right there I'm hoping for that dream book: a novel that's a page-turner, involves the supernatural, but also gives a little intellectual pleasure. Big disappointment.
The novel, the first of a planned trilogy, concerns a historian, Diana Bishop, who like Harkness specializes in alchemical texts. We meet Diana in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, in the early fall. She's researching a paper that's due at a big conference in a month. Her research gets sidetracked when Diana gets hold of an alchemical text that's wanted by the three types of supernatural creatures: witches, vampires, and daemons. Diana, by the way, is a witch. She denies how much she uses magic, and she avoids other witches. Yet she's the most powerful witch, like, ever, and so attracts more attention than she knows how to handle. Some of that attention comes from Matthew de Clermont, a 1,500 year old vampire with whom she falls quickly in love. Diana morphs from an independent career woman concerned with impending deadlines into a old-fashioned romance novel heroine overcome by an older, more sophisticated, uh...control freak. Vampires are protective in a serious way. Like Stephanie Meyer's heroine Bella, Diana becomes the center of attention and drama, as various supernaturals battle against this forbidden love. Unlike Bella, Diana isn't someone the average reader can relate to, nor does Harkness anchor her heroine in everyday life. The details of Diana's life become more absurd, especially the Harry Potter-style magical house in which she grew up. Are we supposed to believe that nobody has noticed Diana's two moms are witches?
I'd rather read a page-turner with intellectual content than one without, but I'd rather read a well-written book than one that seeks to impress (or flatter). Beneath the academic frippery, there's a novel that needs better pacing, better plotting, and better characters. I'm unsure of whether or not I'll try the next installment.
on March 20, 2011
I was delighted with "Discovery". It reminded me somewhat (in the scope of the plot, writing style, and the well-developed hero and heroine) of Diana Gabaldon's "Outlander", which has long been one of my favourites. Some published reviewers have stated that they found the plot "plodding". I disagree; "Discovery" is clearly a first book, with lots of characters to introduce, but I found that there were more than enough plot developments to sustain my attention throughout the book. I was able to visualize settings with ease, which helped immerse me in the story. And then, Matthew Clairmont is just swoon-worthy. ;) I eagerly await the sequel!
on May 25, 2016
Admittedly, it's well written in places, and interesting about vampires and other non-humans. In places, that is: sometimes it's just plain boring and banal. Plot is sometimes fast and gripping… but sometimes terribly slow.
Now of course I don't believe that vampires (and many other such creatures) exist. And if we're going for the non-human, why is there nothing about the angelic creatures too: angels, archangels, household gods, and even saints. Harkness certainly has an impressive knowledge of the Bible, but I was disturbed too by the hero's favourite curse of expression of surprise: "Christ!" Come off it, "Christ" from a vampire? A lot of it just doesn't make sense. In my own published fiction (see [...] I find there are plenty of human problems to create interesting stories.
The description of blood feasts and transference of blood between beings is nasty. In fact, for all the interesting things I generally found the book revolting.
I thought this book would be interesting because of the Salem connection. I shan't make that mistake again.
on February 17, 2015
In the first book of her All Souls Trilogy, Harkness gives readers a story of forbidden love reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. Juliet a.k.a. Diana is a witch descendant from Bridget Bishop, the first person executed in the Salem witch trials. She has suppressed her powers for her entire life and much of her story involves her journey to acceptance and mastery of those powers. Romeo a.k.a. Matthew is a 1500 year-old vampire. Both exist naturally and blend into human society, coming together in Oxford's Bodleian Library over an ancient, bewitched manuscript Ashmole 782 and initially despise each other. After all, vampires and witches are sworn enemies. The mystery behind Ashmole 782 is the driving catalyst for the entire plot, bringing other vampires, witches, and demons into the story as they all seek the manuscript. As the only one able to access the spellbound book, Diana soon becomes the target of each of these dangerous creatures. Matthew's increasing desire to protect Diana is inevitably what brings the two closer.
A Discovery of Witches is an intelligent collection of history, academic intrigue, and myth. Harkness creates beautiful descriptions such as her explanation of Ashmole 782 as a palimpsest with once washed off ink reappearing under new text as if it were a textual ghost. The palimpsest image then occurs again, 350 pages later, in an image-evoking description of Matthew's body: "its bright surface obscuring the tale of him hinted at by all those scars." The most unique aspect of the novel has to be the house belonging to Diana's Aunt's Sarah and Emily (both also witches). It is not only haunted by a number of deceased relatives that come and go depending on the situation that arises within the walls, but the house has a mind of its very own. It closes, opens, and locks doors; creates new rooms for visiting guests; hides precious objects until they are needed; and any number of other strange and fascinating activities.
If I am to provide some criticism it would be that A Discovery of Witches is basically Romeo and Juliet meets Twilight meets Fifty Shades of Grey. (In Harkness' defense, though, the last title in that list was published after A Discovery of Witches.) Despite the fact that Diana is a strong and independent female character, Matthew still takes on the protector or knight-in-shining-armour role that is so typical of love stories. It was rather disappointing when it became clear that Diana would inevitably take on the role of damsel-in-distress. Near the end of the novel, there is a subtle jab at Shakespeare that doesn't sit quite right, suggesting that the famous playwright was a magpie collecting other writer's stories. Demeaning the most famous playwright in history is a bit harsh coming from an author who has just written a contemporary version of Romeo and Juliet herself.
What is wonderful about A Discovery of Witches and places it outside the confines of being labelled "just another forbidden love story" is that it asks for acceptance, but not just acceptance for the two lovers, an all-encompassing acceptance of all species (or races) by all others. The novel is a page-turner no doubt and as Diana and Matthew timewalk back to the 1590s for Harkness' second novel of the trilogy, Shadow of Night, the historical-fiction lover in me is definitely intrigued. I'm also curious to see how Shakespeare will fare through Harkness' eyes during his own time period.
Historian, Dr. Diana Bishop, comes across a rare manuscript and inadvertently breaks a spell to open the book. Magic doesn’t frighten her, as Diana comes from a long line of witches. She’s not the only one interested in the book, however. Other witches soon appear in the area, along with daemons, and one particularly alluring vampire named Matthew. Despite her best efforts to avoid him, she’s attracted to Matthew, and soon falls in love. In this world, though, relationships between species is reviled and there is a price to pay. Over the following weeks, not only is Diana and Matthew’s safety threatened, but it becomes clear that other witches will do almost anything to obtain the book and acquire Diana’s unique powers. Trouble is brewing, and that trouble could trigger war.
A Discovery of Witches is a terrific story. While the romance between Matthew and Diana is the primary focus in the book, there are far more layers than forbidden love. There are plenty of historical references, but the underlying thread centers around Diana’s struggle to accept who she really is. Diana prefers to live with humans and never use magic for reasons you’ll learn in the book, yet circumstances are forcing her to face her fears. This is a book about finding’s one’s place in the world, despite great obstacles. It’s one of the best fantasies I’ve read in the past year.