Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

My Rating: 1.0 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 3.90 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.98 / 5.00

Diana Bishop comes from a long line of witches that stretches back to Salem and beyond. However, she refuses to follow her ancestors, preferring to be a scholar instead, becoming an expert on the history of Alchemy. While studying at the Bodleian Library in Oxford she suddenly discovers an ancient alchemical manuscript with magical overtones. After looking through it and being somewhat intrigued, she decides to return it to the collection and continue with her studies but the librarian has never heard of the text and has no idea how it came to be on the shelf. When she returns to look for it, the book is missing.

Matthew Clairmont is a vampire geneticist who is drawn to the magical burst that accompanies Diana opening the strange book, along with many other magically sensitive individuals. It seems it has been lost for centuries and is coveted by many within the supernatural community and they begin to circle Diana and haunt her steps. Matthew becomes fascinated by Diana and a budding romance ensues.

The premise for this book sounds intriguing, especially as I have studied the history of science, so I was expecting a historical mystery wrapped up with a little paranormal romance. I look at the blurb now and the most ominous aspect of it is the mention of it being “as contemporary and sensual as the Twilight series-with an extra serving of historical realism.” If I had seen that remark before opening the book I might have been spared the frustration of attempting to read it, because a comparison to Twilight is never going to persuade me that I am about to immerse myself in a great literary masterpiece.

So what exactly did I not like about this book? Well, let us start with the author’s obsessive compulsion to describe, in mind-blowingly tedious detail, every possible aspect of the Bodleian Library. Yes, Ms Harkness, I get it: you have been there and you really, really, REALLY loved it, but I do not need to know what color the carpet is in every room, nor how the seats are arranged, nor what is outside which windows, etc, etc, in order to follow the story. In fact, it was highly distracting and after the fourth or fifth mass of unnecessary detail it was getting rather frustrating. It slowed up the story, filled my mind with unimportant clutter and left me wondering why your editor did not simply draw big red crosses through whole pages of it. If I want to know more about the library I can use the Internet and read the webpage.

As a Brit, I often find that foreign authors try very hard to capture the essence of the United Kingdom and its culture and some come close enough that I can read their work without the mistakes poking me in the eye every five minutes. Ms Harkness did a reasonable job of many aspects of UK culture, although she did make a somewhat unforgivable mistake regarding the iconic Sir David Attenborough that I found annoying. She presents the great naturalist, communicator and film-maker as a pioneering research scientist: a claim that I am quite sure Sir David would find highly flattering but totally laughable. I fear that I really do need to start up that web-based business offering myself as an expert in ‘How to make your portrayal of the UK not want to make Brits bang their heads on a wall’.

Next, as Ms Harkness is a professional historian of science, I was shocked at her obvious misunderstanding of many aspects of science and the way in which it progresses. She confused various specializations that are totally different and completely separate, which is unforgivable because their definitions can be found using Google. She also has a deep misunderstanding of the personalities of most scientists. Her vampires are near immortal and given to scientific pursuits, but keep changing their names to fool the human scholars. OK, so we will put aside the fact that ego is a huge part of scientific research, especially when it comes to publication and taking the credit for discoveries, but the idea that a researcher would simply skip from one line of research to another without wanting to pursue his chosen obsession to the very end of eternity is absurd. I speak as a person who is married to a research scientist and who knows plenty of others. I will not dissect her claims for Matthew’s solitary unraveling of wolf genetics because I think I have made my point.

So, you are not British or a scientist and, therefore, these problems do not have an impact upon you. Are there any other problems with this book?

Unfortunately, yes, there are. Let us examine Diana, the witch who has spent her entire life denying her ancestry and refusing to practice her skills. Would you be surprised if I told you that she is actually one of the most powerful witches in the world? No? I have to admit that I was not surprised either, because that little nugget fits in with the overall stereotype that makes up our heroine. She is an orphan, a loner, she rejects her past, she is spunky, super intelligent and can look after herself, she is also amazingly powerful. This was a depressingly obvious decision, and led to other predictable phenomena. As a witch that has sworn off using any magic, for any reason, ever . . . she changes her mind when a book she wants is on a top shelf . . . I kid you not: that is the massively significant moment at which she chooses to try using her magical abilities rather than getting a step or even dragging her chair over to the shelf. Of course, she gently pulls the correct book from the shelf and floats it down to her hand with amazing control, even though she has never practiced using her telekinesis before. Needless to say, this had my eyes rolling quite a bit.

However, the point at which I stopped reading came when we discovered that she glows in the dark / when she is asleep. There is only so much of ‘special snowflake’ syndrome that I can take in my Mary Sue before I want to vomit, and this shot past that boundary and left it in the distance. But wait, what of our gorgeous hero, Matthew the Vampire? Well, we discover that Diana glows because he breaks into her bedroom and hovers over her watching her sleep. I am aware that this is something that Edward does in Twilight, and that is creepy enough even though he looks like a teenager, but Matthew is hundreds of years old. This is creepy, stalker behavior and it gave me no hope that he will not indulge in other controlling behavior later in the story. I predicted that he would abduct her and/or make her his sex slave in no time at all, but felt no desire to find out.

As well as these major problems, I would also add that this huge tome could have used a thorough editing. The Bodleian was not the only subject of pages of unnecessary detail and I calculate that almost one fifth of the book could have been deleted to improve the readability and plot flow. I realize that many people liked this book an awful lot: I just cannot work out why.

Other Reviews:


  1. My biggest problem was with the yoga pants. I only need to hear yoga pants described so many times before I'm like "I get it! She owns no other clothes! Please shut up and get on with it."

    1. The yoga pants passed me by somewhat, but I cannot believe how badly edited this book was - I would have used up several red pens on it! :D


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