Sarah Ryburn's Reviews > A Discovery of Witches

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
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Apr 05, 2011

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bookshelves: fantasy, vampire-lit
Read in May, 2011

*** 1/2
This book started off with a bang. I was totally hooked and spent my entire Memorial Day glued to a chair with the book in my lap. I polished it off after work yesterday, and I am thirsty for more (hehe– weak attempt at vampire humor). Diana and Matthew set out on a fabulous journey, the physics of which I surrender utterly to willing suspension of disbelief with the fervent hope that its progression will form the bulk of the next installment. My main complaint is that I must steel myself to wait at least six months for its publication!

Having confessed as much, there were a few things that bothered me. I got bogged down in the middle with the romance; however, I've read many reviews on GR and elsewhere that make the inevitable comparisons to Twilight, so I prefer not to belabor that point. Simply put, I recognized several parallels of plot structure as well as the obvious "possessive-protective" vampire trait shared by Matthew Clairmont and Edward Cullen (at least Matthew warns Diana that she might not like it). I'm not convinced that characterization is entirely to blame for the plot's sluggish moments. Matthew and Diana are both deeply flawed as characters, in aspects both humanizing and deeply frustrating to me as a reader. Still, I suspect that the greater part of my frustration derives from an artifice of plot: namely the attempt to transform requited love into a satisfying and sustaining plot device.

I have spent the better part of my day pondering the very real difficulty of sustaining a novel in this manner; in literature star-crossed and unrequited loves are the greater themes, particularly when coupled with adventure, heroism, sacrifice, and/or tragedy. Love found and lived out on the page simply does not enthrall. I often long for a happy ending, but I want my lovers to earn it, usually by demonstrating either strength of character or noble action, although great cleverness, even if somewhat suspect, will often do the trick. I want to admire the lovers for their constancy, endurance, courage, or cunning. Matthew's obsessively protective nature seems rote after Twilight, and Diana's morphogenesis from independent woman and respected academic to besotted damsel-in-distress may be regarded by many as a type of evolutionary back-sliding. I'm no feminist; still, I may never forgive Harkness for Diana's first experience of witchwater, atop a medieval castle parapet as Matthew drives away. Absurdly cliche and beneath both author and heroine.

I suspect that Harkness is playing for time to develop her mystery plot; she falls back rather clumsily on romance in the attempt, and characterization suffers badly for it. I loved the French setting, and it is there, in Matthew's personal library, that Diana discovers her vampire's fascination with Darwin and evolutionary biology. This I can handle. I'm also rather drawn to the characters of Ysabeau and Marthe, and I hope I'll learn more of their histories and relationship and of Diana's apparent attachment to Ysabeau. The romance becomes problematic in its succession of ponderous, repetitive love scenes. If I'm no feminist, neither am I a prig; still, I did not appreciate the gratuitous titillation of the "bundling" scene. I don't envision Matthew as a prig either (truthfully, I imagine him capable of overwhelming, burning passion), but scenes of his fondling Diana before an open refrigerator door and a house full of witches, daemons, and other vampires doesn't quite mesh with his earlier austere figure. It beggars credulity and, frankly, bores.

These clumsy, often hackneyed, depictions of passion lie at the problematic heart of requited love. It will not serve as a vehicle of plot. Harkness brings passionate love returned but not consummated to the forefront and laboriously drives her mystery plot forward almost as subtext. A more deft handling of both character and plot development would, I think, do the reverse. Harkness left me to subsist on bundling and passionate kisses for the better part of 150 pages, and I am dangerously close to resenting it. I really like the story, and I want to love the characters. Please, Deborah, don't punish me this way again. A friend, who happens to be a psychologist, described such a scenario once as "two ticks, no dog"; he was talking about a new husband and wife who each expect the other to fulfill them completely and find themselves disillusioned with marriage and unreasonably angry with each other. Matthew and Diana's marriage becomes the literary equivalent: I think the love affair is meant to be the dog, and it's seriously anemic.

In fairness to the author, I acknowledge that she makes reasonably short work of the Diana/Matthew love story; the worst of the offending passages are found in their time in France. The plot picked up pace and interest with Diana's kidnapping and the change of setting to upstate New York. In New York, Harkness begins to develop more richly the mystery of Ashmole 782, its link to Matthew's research as well as Diana's magical legacy, and its crucial role in the politics of power among creatures in their mythological world. I've written so much about what I dislike and don't appreciate that I fear rereading this review and second-guessing my four stars. Don't do it, SR! Remember that you read it in less than 12 hours total, that you couldn't put it down. Remember, too, its many redeeming qualities. Witches, vampires, and magic in a fantastic world that, as another GR member wrote, "my rational brain tells me doesn't exist, but my heart whispers could be right under my nose." Well said!

6/6/11- I have changed the rating to 3.5 stars after all if only because I've just read another novel set against the backdrop of alchemy and magic, and I am reminded that all good writing meets certain standards, holds to basic non-expendable rules. Still, of course, waiting for book two.


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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Jolie Kerenick This is the book that my sister in law is reading. She says it's really good.

Sarah Ryburn wow. found it on a friend's goodreads page. i'm really interested!

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