Deep in the stacks of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, young scholar Diana Bishop unwittingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript in the course of her research. Descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana wants nothing to do with sorcery, so after a furtive glance and a few notes, she banishes the book to the stacks, but her discovery sets a fantastical underworld stirring, and a horde of daemons, witches, and vampires soon descends upon the library. Diana has stumbled upon a coveted treasure lost for centuries–and she’s the only creature who can break its spell.
A Discovery of Witches has immense potential to be an intricate and dynamic novel, but is bogged down by clunky writing and a terribly conceptualized romance.
Harkness has created a world in which three different species (witches, vampires, and daemons) are segregated and a world in which history is deeply ingrained within the text. Harkness’ exploration of the three different species is imaginative in its execution and intricate in its details. What I appreciated most was the distinction between magic and witchcraft. Though it’s not explored as much as I would have liked, it’s an interesting distinction I have not seen before. History plays an important role throughout the novel. The main characters, Diana and Matthew, are both deeply connected to history in different ways. Diana is researching alchemy while Matthew is a very old vampire. The inclusion of history throughout the novel is one of Harkness’ strengths as a writer. It never feels out of place or unnecessary.
Harkness also shines in her exploration of the supernatural being explained through science, more specifically DNA. Though the information may now always be correct, what makes it work is its believability and context within the novel.
Unfortunately, this is where the positive praise ends and negative criticism begins with the characters.
Diana starts off as a very interesting character. She has a doctorate and is studying alchemy manuscripts for further research. She’s very much a character who has her mundane life together, except that it’s not that mundane. Diana has been avoiding the use of her powers and seeking solace in a human life. However, once Matthew is introduced, Diana becomes a very frustrating and annoying character. She doesn’t have an ounce of agency throughout the entire novel. I would have bet that she would reclaim her agency by the end, but up until the last few pages she still defers to Matthew and excuses every lie or wrong he’s committed. There are so many things he does that Diana brushes off that made me want to throw the book across the room.
Matthew, on the other hand, is overbearing and controlling to an unhealthy degree from beginning to end. He not only has to control the people he loves, but everyone within his immediate vicinity. Every alpha male vampire stereotype there is, Matthew conforms to them.
The relationship between Diana and Matthew is what ruins the novel. Too many pages are devoted trying to convince the reader of their chemistry and developing feelings. Unfortunately, these scenes are cringe worthy and awkward because the writing is so clunky and clinical. A Discovery of Witches is 200 pages too long and it all relates to their relationship.
Throughout the entire novel I was getting Twilight vibes, some good and some bad. It wasn’t until quite late in the novel that I Googled the publish dates for both novels. It’s clear Harkness was inspired by Twilight and even going as far as having Matthew call Diana “ma lionne” (my lion). I probably would have enjoyed this a lot more had I read it when it was first published.
Overall, A Discovery of Witches has an interesting premise with dynamic politics interwoven with history, but is bogged down by the cringe worthy romance and too many pages dedicated to it.
Will I continue the series? Maybe. I’m not running out the door in search of the next novel, but if I happen upon it at a used book sale I won’t turn it down.