The old adage of you should never judge a book by its cover comes to mind when I think about A Discovery of Witches. Or maybe that should be amended to read never judge a book by its marketing campaign.
While the marketing campaign would have you believe this is a new, unique entry into the fantasy world, the reality is that the novel is nothing more than a badly plotted vampire romance with huge hints of Mary Sue thrown in for good measure.
The sad part is that it starts out so well. Diana Bishop is the last descendant of the Bishop family of witches who were at the center of the Salem witch trials. Her parents were two powerful witches (who were killed) and while Diana has denied her heritage, she still can’t help but user her powers from time to time. She tries to limit herself only to important things like fixing the washing machine to keep her apartment from flooding. But when she stumbles across an ancient text in her scholarly studies that is brimming with power, Diana suddenly becomes even more on the radar of the supernatural community than ever before.
In Deborah Harkness’ universe, the supernatural includes witches, vampires and daemons. Before you know it, Diana’s life is crawling with people taking an interest in the book and her. One in particular is Matthew, who also happens to be a vampire. At first, Diana is irritated by his apparent interest in her and spurns his advances. But, as I said before, this is a cleverly disguised vampire romance, so it’s not long before she’s taking an interest in the vampire man. It probably doesn’t help that her aunt who raised her and her partner (who is also a witch) strongly disapprove of Matthew. Matthew also smells like cloves, something Diana dwells on lot over the course of the story.
It’s at this point the book begins to derail completely. The early hook of a powerful supernatural entity denying her powers and heritage all while stumbling across a powerful ancient text quickly gets lost in a book that gives into every bad Mary Sue tendency. Long passages of the book are spent on meals that are shared by Diana and Matthew as well as their mutual love of wine. (There hasn’t been this much emphasis placed on wines in a novel since Sideways.) I suppose it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise since reading the author’s bio, I find she’s a wine critic for a blog.
If you can plow through all of that (and believe me, you’ll have to plow), then we get into Matthew taking Diana to supernatural yoga not once but multiple times in the story, Diana’s love of crew and how great it feels to be out on the water and her lamenting on her lack of wardrobe. I often joke that the biggest factor that keeps me from fully embracing Tolkein is his excess in world-building, seemingly describing every leaf of every tree on the journey to Mordor. In the case of Witches, it’s almost as if Harkness is trying to create the world by showing us every last single detail of every single day Diana experiences. Instead of feeling like the story is building a fully realized world, the final product comes off as seemingly wish fulfillment and the author barely disguising herself as the main protagonist. It also leads to large chunks of the middle of the book being less than compelling and entertaining. The sad part is that Harkness hides a few revelations in the middle chunk of the book so you can’t really skip that section.
And then there’s the romance with Matthew. This storyline borrows heavily from the Twilight saga. And no, I don’t mean that as a compliment. As I’ve said before, long sections of the story dwell on Matthew’s smelling like cloves. The story tries to have Diana resist Matthew in the first pages, but its telegraphed very early these two will fall hopelessly in love. Diana’s declarations of love ring false as the story progresses. I’m guessing she just swore off romance in her life until the right vampire came along.
If you’re a fan of vampire romance, you may eat this up with a spoon. However, the other excesses of the story are so great that I had a hard time overlooking them as well. It all adds up to one of the more profoundly disappointing books I’ve read in a long, long time. And this is the start of a trilogy of novels. Here’s one reader who won’t be back for more.