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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


A Discovery of Witches

Deborah Harkness

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To purchase A Discovery of Witches

Title: A Discovery of Witches
Author: Deborah Harkness
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011
Length: 579 pages
Availability: A Discovery of Witches - US
A Discovery of Witches - UK
A Discovery of Witches - Canada
A Discovery of Witches - India
Le Livre perdu des sortilèges - France
Die Seelen der Nacht - Deutschland
Il libro della vita e della morte - Italia
El descubrimiento de las brujas - España
  • Book one of the All Souls Trilogy

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Our Assessment:

B- : way too long-winded

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B+ 26/1/2011 Karen Valby
The Guardian . 11/2/2011 Jenny Turner
The LA Times . 19/2/2011 Nick Owchar
The Washington Post . 3/3/2011 Elizabeth Hand

  From the Reviews:
  • "Harkness writes with thrilling gusto about the magical world. (...) But just when I began to wonder whether A Discovery of Witches was nerdy-cute rather than truly magical, the plot accelerated. As the mysteries started to unravel, the pages turned faster, almost as if on their own. By the most satisfying end, Harkness had made me a believer." - Karen Valby, Entertainment Weekly

  • "(T)his is a very silly novel. Characters and relationships are stereotyped. The historical background is a total pudding. The prose is terrible. And yet, the ideas have just enough suction, somehow, to present an undemanding reader with some nice frissons." - Jenny Turner, The Guardian

  • "The book's pace is leisurely -- often a little too leisurely -- as Diana and Matthew circle each other, moving from suspicion to trust. (...) A professor of history at USC, Harkness creates an entertaining world in her first novel" - Nick Owchar, The Los Angeles Times

  • "If Harkness doesn't ring many changes upon the overworked tropes of paranormal romance, at least she leaves readers with hope of a more engaging sequel." - Elizabeth Hand, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Discovery of Witches is, for the most part (but, oddly, not quite the entire part) narrated by Diana Bishop, an academic specializing in the history of science who teaches at Yale and is doing research at Oxford's Bodleian Library when the story opens. She is also a bona fide witch, descended from the Bishop family of Salem-witches fame. Nevertheless, she tries her best to use witchcraft sparingly, if at all, trying to live as human-like as possible. Diana's parents mysteriously died when she was seven, while in Nigeria, but she was raised in a witch-household, by her aunt.
       At the Bodleian, one of the books she gets a look at is 'Ashmole 782' -- which already leaves her with a funny feeling just when she touches (and smells) it. She sees that it is a palimpsest, "a manuscript within a manuscript", where the paper (well, parchment) had been reused, one text washed away and another written over it. Except:

This was not an ordinary palimpsest. The writing hadn't been washed away -- it had been hidden with some sort of spell. But why would anyone go to the trouble of bewitching the text in an alchemical book ? Even experts had trouble puzzling out the obscure language and fanciful imagery the authors used.
       Diana doesn't realize it immediately, but Ashmole 782 is a very special book -- and one that quickly attracts a lot of attention. In the following days, Diana finds all sorts of unwanted attention at the Bodleian: word quickly gets around that she's had a peek at the mysterious book, and lots of others have an interest in that. Among the interested parties: Matthew Clairmont -- a scientist at the university who, of course, is also a vampire. A fifteen-hundred-year-old one at that.
       Witches and vampires apparently don't mix very well, but Matthew takes on a protector role in the library, keeping the worst of the new-found attention at bay and trying to help Diana along. It turns out she has a special sort of connection to the book -- it revealed itself to her, when no one else has been able to glimpse it for ages -- and that makes her a very big target.
       Naturally -- and dangerously unnaturally -- Diana and Matthew fall in love, as much of A Discovery of Witches turns out to be a damsel-in-distress and knight-in-shining-armor sort of story. What with Matthew's blood-thirst (controlled, but always a threat) and despite their mutual liking of yoga, it's still not your everyday romance -- which also makes it kind of hard to work with. Even when they become a couple, it's ... different:
     "Did I miss something ?" I finally asked. "When were we married ?"
     Matthew's eyes lifted. "The moment I came home and said I loved you. It wouldn't stand up in court perhaps, but as far as vampires are concerned, we're wed."
       Well, there you go .....
       Aside from taking a 1500-year-old husband, Diana finds that her humdrum and all too human academic lifestyle has been rather upset in other ways, too. By glimpsing (if not yet unlocking) the secrets of Ashmole 782 she's unwittingly been drawn into something much, much bigger.
       Good, then, that she's (semi-)equipped to handle things: as Matthew observes/warns her:
There's magic inside you, Diana, and it wants to get out, whether you ask for it or not
       Just how much magic is revealed ... by a DNA test (which also reveals not one but two genetic profiles, explaining some of her special powers ...), among other things. A sampling of her hair suggests she might have a few more special-even-for-witches powers -- "time-walking, shape-shifting, divination", too ..... (It's the timewalking that they decide to take advantage off in then continuing these adventures, as the sequel has them trying to get to the bottom of things in the past (familiar territory for Matthew, who has lived through this and so much more ...).)
       A Discovery of Witches has a somewhat promising premise (or two), what with the supernatural creatures who all rub one another the wrong way (and have considerable powers) and the unlikely lover-pair of Diana and Matthew. Harkness also quickly gets to the most interesting thing, the mysterious book and its mysterious secrets -- but she doesn't do nearly enough with that: everyone is interested in Ashmole 782, but it remains elusive, to say the least. (Diana's initial reluctance to pursue it and anything about it any further doesn't help.)
       With lots of other mysteries slowly revealed as well -- notably hints of something far more serious being behind the deaths of Diana's parents, as well as the possibility that vampires are "exhibiting signs of species deterioration" (i.e. dying out) -- as well as all sorts of confrontations and dark doings, A Discovery of Witches offers a bit of excitement. But the dialogue-heavy novel drags in many places, without nearly enough excitement along the way. Too paint-by-the-numbers -- you can practically see Harkness position her characters and conflicts on the chessboard and then go through the often predictable beginner's moves -- and with only some of the storylines of real interest, there's not nearly enough payoff here for all those pages. And it's only the first in a trilogy .....
       There is some hope that the trilogy comes together eventually. Harkness' writing is basic but not bad, and even if she doesn't expect much from her readers (like that they'd know who Giordano Bruno was) she at least seems to have a decent sense of history, which comes in useful in this centuries-spanning saga. And while some of the touches feel forced -- the Oxford insights, Diana's rowing -- at least Harkness gives it a good old college try with some odd twists (yoga ?) which help liven things up a bit. And once the characters have settled in, and there's less need for explaining about these unusual creatures -- 'witches', 'vampires' -- that should help too.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 June 2012

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A Discovery of Witches: Reviews: Deborah Harkness: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Deborah Harkness was born in 1965.

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© 2012 the complete review

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