I decided to reread A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness because I was a little bummed when I finished The Twelfth Enchantment. I was in the mood for a good witch book so I returned to a book I had loved when it came out.
A Discovery of Witches definitely held up its end of the bargain.
By page two you know Diana Bishop is a historian working at Oxford and a witch not so into her witchiness. A manuscript innocently requested turns out to be a magical document on which the entire plot hinges. A three forms of creatures in the world – witches, vampires and daemons – want access to this manuscript which has been lost for hundreds of years.
Diana’s parents are descendants from two powerful magical families – the Proctors and the Bishops. And yet she rejects magic. Her parents were killed abroad when she was seven and her childish logic resulted in a world view that clings to logical and rationality. Magic couldn’t save her parents, it won’t save her, ergo magic should not be considered.
Despite being a grown woman with a challenging career, Diana is on the typical coming-of-age journey for a witch – she must learn to embrace her powers, she must learn to trust them and she must learn how to use them.
An ally and potential love interest appears in the form of Matthew Clairmont, a 1,500 year-old vampire. Without understanding why, he follows his protective instincts and helps keep Diana safe from all three kinds of creatures, for even witches will hurt her to get to the manuscript.
Beneath the veneer of a witch’s coming-of-age is a tried and true romance. Matthew wants the document as well, only that impulse is muddied by his feelings. Diana learns about his original intent after acknowledging her feelings, which raises significant questions. They struggle through these secrets and misunderstandings while they also struggle to keep Diana alive.
Keeping her alive is an important goal since more and more people seem to be moving against Diana and Matthew. A conspiracy the size of The DaVinci Code – with a secret society to boot – grows and expands as more and more villains arrive.
Harkness does an admirable job of explaining the magical world Diana and Matthew inhabit. Since Diana rejected a magical understanding from her aunts as a child, we get to learn along with her. The best moments when information arrived was when it came in the form of a secret revealed. Matthew withholds information to keep Diana safe, she eventually learns about it and there is a fallout to deal with. Creating tension with each reveal is an excellent way to present exposition.
The back jacket flap on my book mentions that Harkness writes an award-winning wine blog. Wine features prominently in the novel as something vampires enjoy drinking when they don’t need blood. Some of the sections involving Matthew’s education of Diana were a big long. And that very prominence made me wonder how necessary the yoga and rowing scenes were.
Diana has a very strong fight-or-flight instinct and gets huge bursts of adrenaline. To keep her anxiety at bay, she runs, rows and does yoga. The rowing fit pretty naturally into the plot. Matthew inviting Diana to a yoga class for witches, daemons and vampires? That didn’t fit as well. I know that a class where the three types of creatures mingle without animosity is important to the overall theme and struggle in the book but it stands out as too much information.
If Harkness is so into wine that she included a lot of stuff about wine in the novel, it begs the question of how into rowing and yoga (and horseback riding, by the way) she is into as well. Did these interests get included because Harkness enjoys them so knows a lot? How necessary to the plot were they?
I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy some of those activity-related scenes – the entire book is well-written and engaging. I just wonder about the use of personal details in a debut novel. It’s something for me to think about while I work on my WIP.
A Discovery of Witches is part of a trilogy and I enjoyed the second installment. I’ll write about that soon. Spoiler alert – I liked it!