In a nutshell:
Scholar Diana Bishop is a witch who largely refuses to use her powers – except for special occasions, such as when her washing machine is broken or a book is out of reach. While conducting research in Oxford’s Bodliean Library, Diana comes across a spell-bound book and has a brief magical interaction with it before returning it to the stacks. This action brings her to the attention of all the supernatural creatures in the vicinity: the other witches, daemons, and vampires. One vampire in particular, Matthew Clairmont, seeks her out and the two fall in love. This taboo relationship and Diana’s burgeoning powers throw both of them into danger, as they journey to Clairmont’s ancestral home in France and then to Diana’s home in upstate New York.
If I were to compare A Discovery of Witches to another book, it would be Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. The two books share a combination of vampires, history and travel, not to mention lengthiness. I remember loving Kostova’s novel, especially her ability to evoke the way places were in certain times. A Discovery of Witches does not have as good a sense of place, except for Harkness’ depiction of the old haunted house in upstate New York. I loved that house with all its quirks and ghosts. Harkness gave the upstate New York locale a New England feel, and I certainly warmed to that. Indeed, the last third may have been my favorite part of the book, as more and more characters show up at the house, including one of my favorite side characters, Miriam. True, the last third also could get boggy as supernatural politics and rules are stuffed in alongside eleventh-hour hurried explanations – [**Spoiler**] oh Diana you have all the powers because you absorbed your twin in utero! okay go time travel now! [**/end spoiler**].
Why am I starting this review by describing the last third? Well, I wanted to start with the positive, I guess. I debated giving up on this book while in the first two-thirds because I hated the Matthew / Diana dynamic so much. Young “special” woman courted by very old vampire? Oh, and he’s stalkerish (“over-protective”), handsome and rich too? Yippee. The first part – in Oxford – was almost insufferable, as Matthew shows off his antiques and fine wines to Diana, whisking her around in his high-end car and to his high-end estate. And he’s also – wait for it – dangerous, so there’s that tired rigmarole as well.
The section in France is a little improved, as we are introduced to Matthew’s mom, Ysabeau, also a cool side character. But it’s also: more antiques! More displays of Matthew’s fine tastes! And it was in this section that I realized that the book features lots of scenes of Diana being told to rest. Usually this is for a good reason, as she experiences a lot of emotional and physical trauma during the book. But she is constantly submitting to the caretaking and ministrations of others, and this gets repetitive. As lengthy as this book is, as a reader, you start to eye those repetitive aspects and ask if all that was really necessary.
I’m semi-curious about the rest of the trilogy, as I did like aspects of the book. Despite the clumsy way it was sometimes handled or written, the supernatural politics and world-building had some intrigue. And the side characters had promise – more airtime for them could possibly benefit the story as a whole, I think. Has anyone read the whole trilogy? Does it get better?
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Iris on Books – “Throughout the first half, reading A Discovery of Witches felt like an addictive rush, I kept on wanting to read more, and I could not wait to recommend it to the people I know who enjoy paranormal fiction. However, towards the end of the book, that rush turned into a mixture of the will to keep reading and dread combined with, at times, annoyance.”
The Literary Omnivore – “The plot structure is crippled by the lack of any resolution in this installment of the trilogy, the overbearing romance is so syrupy you’ll want to wash your hands, and the worldbuilding’s motto appears to be “Why show when you can tell”? Definitely a miss.”
Tif Talks Books – “I loved the complexities added in, including alchemic history, suspenseful mysteries, intricate connections, scientific relations to the paranormal, and more than a little romance.”