“A Discovery of Witches” may have been better left lost

A Discovery of Witches (2011) jacket photo
A Discovery of Witches (2011) jacket photo

Alright, I lied when I hinted that my next read would be The Great Gatsby.  After closing the cover of The Basic Eight, I reached for the next book on the pile which happened to be the New York Times bestselling novel, A Discovery of Witches, book one of the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness.  First published in 2011, A Discovery of Witches has been described as a richly inventive, historical-romance novel .  An “irresistible tale of wizardry, science, and forbidden love”, according to a critic from People magazine.

The novel follows Dr. Diana Bishop, a descendant of Bridget Bishop, the first woman to be executed for witchcraft during the Salem witch trials of 1692.  Diana has inherited these witchy genes, but “ignores” her powers in favour of logic and science in the stacks of Oxford’s Bodleian Library.  I say “ignores” because she’s pretty ready to use just a touch of magic here and there when her washing machine breaks down, or she’s too lazy to find a ladder to get a book just out of reach.  Diana is surrounded daily by other witches, artsy daemons, and vampires (who apparently devote their long lives to science).

Diana has a Doctorate in alchemical history (which she rationalizes as the most logical, un-magical thing she could possibly study).  While looking through alchemical tomes in the library she comes across a mysterious and enchanted manuscript called Ashmole 782, which nobody has ever been able to open until Diana happens upon it one day and it opens right up with a mere touch of her palm.  She banishes the book to the stacks, but her discovery of this manuscript has set a fantastical underworld stirring, and soon a horde of other witches, daemons, and vampires descends upon the library in search of this long-thought-lost tome.  Among them is the vampire geneticist, Matthew Clairmont, who has a keen interest in the manuscript, and to whom Diana feels incredibly drawn.  They work together to discover more about the manuscript and, in the process, Diana discovers more about her own, incredible powers.  Unfortunately, the relationship that gradually (so, so, so gradually) develops between the two threatens to destroy the fragile peace that has long existed between creatures and humans, and will radically change Diana’s world forever.

You may have noticed the sarcasm that crept its way into my synopsis; I’m afraid that I can barely contain my dislike for this book.  A richly inventive historical romance?  I prefer another description by Sandra Kasturi, journalist for The Globe and Mail: “Bewitched meets Twilight meets Harlequin Romance…It’s a romance trying to masquerade as something more erudite.”  (You can view Kasturi’s book review here – I agree with her opinion 100%.)  For anyone hoping for some steamy scenes between a talented witch and a smouldering vampire, you’re definitely reading the wrong book.  A Discovery of Witches is like Twilight for grown-ups; despite the fact that Diana is apparently the most amazing witch ever!, Matthew brushes aside her wandering hands and decrees that his strength makes it too dangerous for them to seal the deal.  No actually, these two see even less action than Bella and Edward because even after they get married (because Matthew says it is so, and I can’t tell you how much that bugs me), Diana and Matthew just kiss a little bit and eventually second-base it (don’t worry, she survives!).

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I only wanted to read this book for the potentially steamy scenes.  I am actually capable of enjoying books that don’t have any sex in them at all!  I’m serious!  Unfortunately, this book was disappointing in that respect too.  I realize that not every heroine can be a strong and capable Katniss Everdeen, but Diana Bishop is, frankly, a little useless.  Unlike your everyday, garden-variety witch, Diana has power over all four of the elements, and she can communicate with animals, fly, AND time-travel.  So what does she do when things get tense?  She passes out, or hides out at Matthew’s country estate, or literally tumbles into his manly arms.  Moreover, Diana really has no backbone to speak of.  Anytime she takes a risk, Matthew gets really, really angry and puts his foot down on any future foolishness.  She’ll hem and haw about being an independent woman, but then she just goes along with his over-bearing attitude.

Even this might be forgivable if the book was a bit of entertaining fluff, a light read that wrapped up nicely and where everyone lived happily ever after.  Unfortunately, it never occurred to me that a book about witches and vampires could be so incredibly dry.  This is no light read – it’s 579 pages of dense, and often superfluous prose complete with awkwardly integrated information dumps.  Not to mention the fact that by the end of this meandering novel, not a single plot point is really resolved; they still don’t know much about Ashmole 782, they still haven’t consummated their marriage, and Diana still has little control over her powers.  One would hope that some of these issues will be resolved with the sequel, Shadow of Night (2012), but I won’t be finding out.  According to Harkness’ website, Warner Bros. has secured the rights to the film adaptation of the All Souls Trilogy; unless they change a few of the gender dynamics and spice it up a little bit, I will likely be passing on this too.

From what I can gather online, if you are a fan of slow, intricate novels like The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, or even Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, you’ll probably like A Discovery of Witches.  I probably should have known better, then, because I didn’t have enough patience for those novels either.

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