Witches are old hat (no pun intended), and vampires are cliché: many a reader today holds these things to be true. If those two things are the main components of a story, then you probably have a recipe for disaster, especially in the hands of a debut writer. I put up my nose at these facts when a good friend from grad school told me about Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches. I’m tired of vampires, I bemoaned, and why does it have to be a romance? Nonetheless, my friend really wanted someone to talk about this book with, so here I finally sit, nearly six hundred pages later, and pleasantly surprised. How pleasantly surprised, though?
In a world where witches, daemons, and vampires live in secret, Diana Bishop is an Oxford alchemy scholar, content to forget the fact that she is a powerful witch. Despite her family’s celebrity among their kind for their magical prowess, Diana is determined to be normal; after, it was witches—magic—that killed her parents long ago. However, after she opens an old and unique manuscript, she meets an enigmatic and handsome vampire (is there any other kind in these books?) who is also interested in her discovery, named Matthew Clairmont. Together, they’ll become unlikely partners in figuring out the secrets behind the manuscript, as well as a conspiracy in the magical community to seize Diana and her power.
As much as I bemoaned this book’s premise at first, I relish a fantasy couple on such equal standing as Matthew and Diana. Matthew may have the token damage, temper, and beauty of any vampire, but his lady fair is no simpering damsel in the face of those faults. Diana doesn’t use her power for much of the book, so she stands against Matthew with her brains, but most of all, with her conviction as a human being. It’s easy to put a white-clad virgin in the passenger seat with a vampire, but I picture Diana standing beside Matthew, not clutched in his arms. So essentially, Matthew and Diana act like rational adults aware of the world outside their relationship.
But here is where my review is doomed to get a little foggy.
On the one hand, I love the world-building. The manuscript that Diana uncovers supposedly details the evolutionary origins of daemons, vampires, and witches, and facets of that science are revealed all across the story. Twists and turns through science and history help make this magical world feel real and complex. But I think it’s the gently meandering nature of the writing that sometimes—sometimes—brings it down.
I normally can’t stand a book that details much of what we can insinuate for ourselves, but Harkness utilizes that style, for the most part, to show the passing of time. Good chunks of the book stay in one location, with relatively the same routine. But when we see, little by little, that those actions are changing, or taking a toll on the characters, you feel, in a chapter or two, the story actually moving forward. It’s definitely not a style for everyone, and I did see cracks in that style from time to time (some scenes go on so long that, despite the enthralling level of detail, you kind of zone out), but I enjoyed seeing those small changes for myself.
Surprisingly, there was little about this book that annoyed or took me out of the story. Matthew and Diana’s relationship felt real and healthy, I enjoyed the side characters, and the slow build of tension and detail was nicely done. All I can really say at this point is that I’m looking forward to Diana and Matthew’s continuing adventures, and possibly even for the TV series due out soon.