A Discovery of Witches was sitting in a display stand on the library desk when I dropped off some books so I snagged it. I love historical tales about witches and Deborah Harkness is a professor of history so I settled in for a good long read. I came close to giving up about a quarter of the way in because the witchcraft was pretty thin, the heartthrobs were pretty thick and the male lead turned out almost immediately to be a vampire. Twilight for grown-ups. No thanks. Muttering through the original had been bad enough.
But I persisted because I have to read one book a day and I’d already had this running start. And it got better—but only a little. There is plenty of history sprinkled throughout the text and any one of the threads would be fascinating to unravel but what dominates in this book is the love story. I am so not a fan of interspecies vampire love stories. Puh-leez, what is the romance about a classic abusive boyfriend set-up in which the besotted undead wouldn’t dream of harming his lady love—except for this teeny little problem he has with his appetites and his teeth?
OK, maybe not fair. Romance aficionados will find this a rich romp through a lot of material that never strays too far from the love story and the travails of the passionate but chaste couple and the somewhat heavy-handed argument for mixed species marriage. The heroine, Diana Bishop, is a scholar spending the summer in Oxford doing historical research at the Bodleian Library. She is also an uncommonly powerful witch who, due to the trauma of her parents’ untimely deaths when she was seven, refuses to use or even acknowledge her powers. When she stumbles across an ancient alchemical text that seems to be alive with mysterious spells, she triggers a witch hunt with herself at the center of it.
Diana runs a lot along the paths at Oxford and she goes rowing in the river solo at odd hours in foggy, deserted landscapes. Very tough cookie in the first half of the novel. Encounters sequential near-death experiences throughout most of the second half when she and the handsome, wealthy, accomplished, urbane, oenophile, ice-cold vampire, who stalks and then seduces her, take on the fearsome and murderous bigots of the magical world.
Matthew Clairmont, charming and cultivated uber-carnivore, has been a kind of very bright Forest Gump throughout most of Western European history and owns the tchotchkes from famous figures to prove it. His taste is exquisite and his fortune formidable. He is a distinguished Oxford fellow and a medical researcher of some renown who attends a weekly yoga class at his country estate that has all the groovy vibes of California, although the yogis are daemons and vampires.
All the creatures—there seem to be few actual humans in this story—have hypersensitive olfactory capabilities and spend a fair amount of time sniffing, describing various scents and explaining how that relays valuable information to them about enemies, threats and love interests. Many of the non-human cast want to get their hands on the mystery book, which has vanished as inexplicably as it appeared.
I read the whole novel. It wasn’t bad. I would rather have been reading a thriller with a good historical subplot that was less a hodge-podge of vampire-witchy heavy breathing salted with historical factoids. But, if you like romances that exist for their own sake and enjoy an encyclopedic knowledge of history as a bonus, go for it. If you’re a witch, you’d probably prefer Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader—funny, wacky, creepy, full of contemporary Salem witches and not a vampire in sight.
A Discovery of Witches: A Novel Deborah Harkness | Viking 2011