Science fiction and fantasy                                            

A Discovery of Witches

by Deborah Harkness


Diana Bishop is a reluctant witch. She shuns the company of other witches, avoids using magic, and immerses herself in the logical work of a historian of science. But one day she calls up an old alchemical text that has been enchanted, and it stirs the magic within her. Soon the Bodleian Library is crawling with vampires, witches and daemons, all of them eager to get their hands on this text and to discover its secrets.

Matthew Clairmont is one of the first people Diana notices taking an interest in her and the book. As a witch she can tell when people are looking at her, and she knows he's a vampire. She's concerned that the abundance of creatures (vampires, witches and daemons) will attract unwanted human attention. A series of gruesome vampire-style killings has already attracted the attention of the press. The book's reappearance threatens the fragile peace between the species. A conflict could be impossible to hide from humanity, and it could lead to persecution and witch hunts that could prove the end for them all.

Diana wants to deny her magic, but if she's caught up in a struggle that affects the future of all creatures she may not have the luxury of that choice. Can she suppress her growing feelings for Matthew, when their love is both forbidden and mutually dangerous?

The first thing that struck me about A Discovery of Witches is its similarities to Twilight. Matthew Clairmont is very much a vampire in the style of Edward Cullen: fiercely over-protective, preternaturally gorgeous, old-fashioned in his attitudes to women, passionate, and de-fanged. In terms of his knight in shining armour credentials he's far, far too perfect. He makes a few rumblings about his need to feed on blood and his scarcely-controllable hunting instincts, but without that frisson of danger he'd be nothing but a cuddly pin-up.

The vampires in this novel are all about wish fulfilment. They have very few of the traditional restrictions placed on vamps, they can walk in daylight, and they don't even have any fangs. They lead rich, interesting afterlives free from poverty and fear of disease, and they get to meet many of history's most colourful characters. A closer look at Matthew's life continues this aspirational theme: his is a world of hunting lodges, fine wines, antiques, French castles, helicopters, and well-stocked libraries. The book focuses on how very posh the vampires are, with a surfeit of cosy mealtime scenes and tours of Clairmont's well-stocked cellars. I found this domestic aspect slow-paced and somewhat dull.

Luckily the pace improves as soon as various other characters intrude on Diana and Matthew's home lives, and we get to the drama that the first half of the novel was largely missing. The story doesn't do badly for action when you consider how much of it is centred around old books and lost pages of manuscripts. In some ways it's erudite, but not overwhelmingly so and never to the extent of being dry as a bone.

However, for all that this is a book about hunger for knowledge and blood and forbidden passions, it didn't succeed in sharpening my curiosity as much as I had hoped it would. This was partly because magic is used less as a metaphor for something else and more as a way of making the heroine look special. When its purpose is merely to get her out of trouble at the last minute it seems something of a cop out. Although this is a danger with all magical fantasy it's worse in this novel because there's so much wish fulfilment going on overall.

My other main objection was Matthew Clairmont, a character I found stiflingly chivalrous. He's a romantic ideal of a man, unfailingly gentle towards those he loves whilst struggling to keep his dark urges in check. He'd be more believable if he had rougher edges, and more likeable if he was more flawed. Diana Bishop at least makes an effort not to play the damsel in distress all the time, but when faced with an alpha male like Matthew it's only ever going to be a token effort.

This story has its good points: the scholarly twist, the pace towards the end, and the novel world of magic and creatures. But the attitudes of its protagonists are stuck in the past, and it needs stronger, more independent female characters.

10th January 2011

Book Details

Year: 2011

Categories: Books

  Female Protagonist  

If you like this, try:

Twilight cover    

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
When Bella moves to the small town of Forks she notices Edward Cullen is not like other young men.

Interview With The Vampire cover    

Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice
In the first episode of The Vampire Chronicles a reluctant vampire recounts his life story to date.

Belladonna cover    

Belladonna by Anne Bishop
The second novel in the Ephemera series focuses on the rogue landscaper Belladonna.

3 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson