Monday, July 25, 2011

Book Review: "A Discovery of Witches" by Deborah Harkness

One thing I’ve noticed since I’ve begun following book bloggers and keeping up with friends on Goodreads is that the quality of book I’ve been reading has been getting better. Surely, this is because most of the books I start now have been reviewed by someone whose tastes I understand might be similar to mine.

So, it’s a bit of a cautionary tale that I began listening to the audiobook of Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, which I found by scanning’s “Most Popular” list, forgetting perhaps that in a world of chart-busters such as Stephanie Meyer and Dan Brown that “the people” tend to sometimes get into books that aren’t, well, let’s just say, in my sweet spot.

A Discovery of Witches follows the adventures of Diana Bishop, who has eschewed her heritage as a witch in lieu of making it on her own as an academic historian. While on sabbatical at Oxford, she becomes embroiled in subterfuge concerning a mysterious manuscript that just might hold the key to the nature of witches, vampires and daemons. Initially, she wants nothing of it, but becomes intrigued by and then enamored of a vampire, Matthew Clairmont, who for some reason seems to be looking out for her, as well as the book.

When I started all the bones of a great story seemed to be there: witches, vampires, daemons, biology, alchemy, and history. It seemed as though Harkness wanted to upgrade the Twilightian fantasy by taking the particulars out of high school and make them adults (both in age and in outlook).

Sadly, the story just didn’t hold up for me. Matthew, naturally (or perhaps supernaturally) is supposed to come across as incredibly smart, and incredibly brave, and incredibly handsome, and incredibly strong, and incredibly fast, and incredibly learned on all subjects, and incredibly dangerous and don’t forget incredibly sensitive. What happens is that he becomes incredibly annoying, while Diana gets trapped in the unwilling-but-plucky heroine clichés that make their scenes together – especially after falling for one another – downright painful.

There were two parts during my listening that really shaped my view. One came about two-thirds of the way through during probably the best and most tense scenes in the book. I’d been sort of slogging along and was hoping for something to shake things up and it began to seem like it might be coming together. As I was listening to the climax, I realized that one of two outcomes was most likely: a cliché’ one that you could see coming from a mile away or a courageous one that could really have set the novel in a new and interesting direction. Guess which one Harkness chose? Yeah.

The other moment was as the book was winding down – about 13 hours into the 14 hour total – that my stomach sank as I realized that THIS BOOK IS NOT A STAND-ALONE STORY!

I should have known. Isn’t anything that can possibly be labeled as “paranormal” – especially “paranormal romance” – required to come in multiple parts? Of course it is. Naive Stevil.

Anyway, in the end, I think Harkness has tried to write a romantic, paranormal, action adventure – and it was certainly a book I wanted to like more than I did. Oddly enough, in some ways it’s a cross between Twilight and The DaVinci Code. So, if you’re into either one or both of those, give A Discovery of Witches a try.

If not, listen to your friend and give this one a pass.

Two stars out of five


MRanthrope said...

then pass I shall...

DEZMOND said...

sounds like an amateur writer :( I hate it when I start reading a book and discover that the author knows nothing about his/her job

SteveB said...

Dezmond -- from what I gather Harkness is a well-respected historian and wine writer. This is her first attempt at fiction though and I suppose it shows.

Max Silver said...

The problem with making characters like Matthew that are pretty much perfect is that no one CARES about someone that's perfect.

Budd said...

I saw this int he Borders today. Thanks to your warning, I knew not to take the bait on the 10% off and will not take it when the deal gets much sweater either.

If you make your Vampire too strong or perfect it makes them boring.

Budd said...

or sweeter, but I imagine the store will be sweaty when things are 75% off.