A Discovery of Witches is Deborah Harkness’s first book in the All Souls Trilogy, an urban fantasy starring vampires, witches, daemons, and even the odd Oxford professor or two. Diana Bishop was born a witch, but ever since her parents’ mysterious deaths when she was seven years old, Diana has steadfastly denied her magical heritage and now makes her way through life on entirely human terms. But everything changes when she accidentally calls up a magical book in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library – a book that no one has seen for hundreds of years – and Diana finds herself up against dangerous, mythical creatures determined to unearth Diana’s deeply hidden magic powers.
Did I say urban fantasy?
Because this book is actually a helluva lot like romance. In fact, A Discovery of Witches is a thinly-disguised riff on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, with perhaps a smidgeon more sophistication. The gorgeous, overprotective vampire and the hapless heroine will evoke a certain amount of déjà vu in any reader familiar with good old Edward and Bella, and Harkness’s lovebirds also focus on the same romantic angst: ‘Does he really love me?’
If you go into the novel expecting a romance, you won’t be disappointed – in fact, you’ll likely be pleased by the sexual tension (and beautiful bodies) that underscores every plot point. But if you’re looking for more traditional fantasy fare, this isn’t it, and Harkness’s prose has none of the elegance that might allow it to transcend its genre. Although there is definitely more meat on this plot’s bones than just the agony of young love, there is still a fair amount of sighing and nuzzling that will likely turn off readers not expecting it. I suspect the book could have been improved with a bit of judicial cutting in that area, but for the most part – with one notably dull exception in a moody French castle – the plot zips happily along and there is plenty of suspense and adventure to occasionally distract our hero and heroine from, well, each other.
Fun and quirky
If, like me, you’re bored at the book’s unoriginality in the beginning, you’ll find the story really starts zipping about halfway through the book, when it adopts the historical mystery feel of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Harkness’s inventiveness also shines in her quirky secondary characters, which are not only witchy and vampiric but, in some exceptional cases, feline and architectural (try to figure that one out!). Although A Discovery of Witches obviously owes much to Twilight, this new novel is much more playful and adventurous. I appreciated the frequent references to historical texts, and it was especially fun reading about the relationships between famous people in history and our vampiric lover – vampires live a long time, after all.
Harkness’s take on vampires, witches, and daemons is also pretty interesting, although it’s clear she’ll have some fleshing out to do before the end of the trilogy. The protagonists’ battle against xenophobia and forbidden love holds obvious parallels with today’s battle for same-sex relationship rights, and although at first I was a little sceptical of how aggressively other characters reacted to this love, I had only to remember real-life historical (and modern) equivalents to realize that, yes, in fact, people often get violent over other people’s choices of romantic partner.
Diana Bishop is a little nonsensical
A Discovery of Witches’ big flaw is Diana Bishop herself, the main character. Although she begins plausibly as a sporty, workaholic intellectual, Diana devolves with frightening speed into another Bella-like goofball, giving up all agency and, seemingly, brains to her new boyfriend. She shows some half-hearted spunk in a couple of key places, but mainly she lets her hunky vampire do all the work and the thinking. For a woman who used to be an accomplished professor and athlete, her independence evaporates pretty darn quickly. I suppose this can be excused as romantic escapism – this isn’t a feminist treatise here – but not only is her complacency annoying, it also seems out of character considering her personality before she meets you-know-who.
My other problem with the heroine is difficult to explain without resorting to spoilers, which I’ve sworn upon my mother’s health never to reveal in a review. Suffice it to say that, for a history professor, she demonstrates a remarkable lack of concern in the face of some disturbing historical information regarding someone she cares deeply about – a lack of concern that, to me, either reveals Diana is seriously cold-hearted or that she doesn’t know as much about history as she thinks. I have hope – albeit a weak hope – that the second book will resolve some of my issues with Diana’s character, although this particular, spoiler-ridden problem will likely never be fixed to my liking.
Why should you read this book?
If you liked Twilight, I can almost guarantee that you’ll like A Discovery of Witches. If you more generally enjoy urban fantasy with a bucket of romance, you’ll also probably like A Discovery of Witches – although Diana’s general incompetence may inspire an occasional wave of fury. (Well, it did for me, anyway.) However, if you’re allergic to heavy doses of romance, you had best stay far, far away from this one; for all its historical tidbits and magical happenings, A Discovery of Witches is a romance through and through.