My first book review for 2018…and it’s not what I’d hoped it would be.
It begins with absence and desire.
It begins with blood and fear.
It begins with a discovery of witches.
The first book I finished in 2018 is A Discover of Witches by Deborah Harkness, the first book in her All Souls Trilogy, about witches, vampires, and daemons. The plot of the novel seemed promising – Diana Bishop, a descendant of a long line of famous American witches has, all her life, tried to accomplish things on her own, without relying on her magic. She studied history at Harvard and Oxford, got tenured at Yale at a very young age, and had published two books about her field of research which is the history of science. Now, back in Oxford, Diana is doing research on the history of alchemy as the forerunner of scientific thinking in preparation for a keynote address she’s to deliver at a conference. While doing her research, Diana somehow accesses an ancient manuscript belonging to one Elias Ashmole (later referred to only as Ashmole 782) which, even to a non-magic-practicing witch is evidently under some kind of spell. Diana discovers that the manuscript not only depicts alchemical facts and illustrations differently, it is also a palimpsest, its pages hiding secret writing that can only be seen using magic. Unbeknownst to Diana, this accidental discovery is about to change her life forever.
In Diana’s world, creatures such as vampires, witches and daemons have always co-existed with humans; living and moving among humans but keeping interaction to a minimum lest they be discovered for what they truly were. So it wasn’t altogether strange that a few days after encountering the strange manuscript, Diana meets Matthew Clairmont at the library in Oxford, who is a tall, dark, handsome and mysterious Oxford Fellow, professor, medical doctor, scientists, and vampire (surprise, surprise!). It does come as a surprise to her though that in the days that followed, not only does she keep “bumping” into Matthew, but that the number of otherworldy creatures frequenting the library has doubled as well. Befriending Diana, Matthew informs her that the manuscript she had recently discovered is a magical text lost long ago about the 3 magical creatures and their origin, evolution, and extinction. No wonder every witch, vampire, and daemon in the area was drawn to Diana and to the manuscript. As Diana tries to understand the significance of the manuscript, as well as her ever-growing powers, she also notices that her forbidden relationship with Matthew is growing stronger and becoming more complicated.
Intelligent, scholarly, and beautiful characters, mysterious manuscripts, historical and medical discoveries and research, what’s not to like right? Seemed like the perfect combination for an instant bestseller…except that it wasn’t. A Discovery of Witches is almost 600 pages long, so you’d think that by the end of novel, Diana would have at least found answers to the manuscript, but no! In the first half of the novel, Diana spends her days going to the library everyday to try to do research, rowing on the river, running along the river, drinking tea, ad infinitum. Matthew, who can’t wait to get his hands on the manuscript constantly stalks Diana who tries and fails to avoid him. Everything she knows about vampires tells her he’s dangerous and that she should stay away from him, so of course she ignores all of it. Eventually they go on a date, followed by another, and another, and yet another…and yoga (yes, yoga!) exclusively for otherworldly creatures, and next thing you know, you’re halfway through the book! The endless pages about Diana and Matthew’s dates and corny courtship is peppered with interesting facts about their magical world and the creatures that inhabit it, Diana’s scholarly research, and Matthew’s medical research on DNA; just barely enough to keep you reading in hopes of getting another glimpse of Ashmole 782, which seemed like the main plot of the novel. About halfway through, the setting changes, but it’s still pretty much the same thing – Matthew and Diana sitting around, drinking tea/wine, reading books, smelling each other, and keeping secrets.
I think my biggest peeve about A Discovery of Witches is the characters themselves. Diana is born from two powerful, intelligent witches; she breezed through her education with affiliation to Harvard, Yale, and Oxford; she is a strong, independent woman who has a photographic memory; she’s a writer, a researcher, scholar, her witch DNA uncharacteristically has every single witch power imaginable: she can fly, control not just one element, but ALL the elements, she can read minds, talk to the dead, shape shift, go back in time, has telekinesis – you name it, she has it – she’s the chosen one of the Chosen One; the most powerful witch that ever lived – and yet, she doesn’t want any of it. She only wants to be a normal, average girl next door. From the way Diana thinks and acts, you’d think she was a clueless teenager. Imagine my surprise to learn that her character was supposed to be in her mid to late 30’s.
Of course, Matthew Clairmont is no better. He is the epitome of vampire cliches – more than a thousand years old, he’s been a knight, a stonemason, an architect, a soldier, and now he’s a scientist, a professor, and a medical doctor. He’s also filthy rich (of course), owning various mansions and estates throughout the world, private jets, and priceless antiques. This power couple has it all, and yet, they both seem so clueless as to what to do in their present predicament. Despite being a powerful witch who can do virtually everything, Diana, when not drinking tea or stuffing her face with food, is either incapacitated due to her uncontrollable magic, an attack from evil witches, or from anxiety. Matthew, a renowned scholar, meanwhile, completely ignores his breakthrough scientific discovery to coddle and protect her from every single thing imaginable. Matthew and Diana become more annoying as their relationship becomes more serious – Matthew justifies his machismo, over protectiveness, and controlling nature as something inherent to vampires, but Diana’s obsessiveness toward Matthew and blatant disregard for her safety and well-being in favor of a “love will conquer all” attitude was just as infuriating.
I read this novel during the Christmas-New Year holidays, and looking back at it now, I don’t know how it kept me reading til the wee hours of the morning. I guess I kept hoping that something would happen, and it wasn’t until more than halfway through that I realized that nothing was actually going to happen. The novel starts out promising, but becomes more and more ridiculous towards the end. With the mystery of Ashmole 782 nearly forgotten, A Discovery of Witches changes from a pseudo-historical, pseudo-scientific, semi-intellectual novel into a hokey teenage occult romance. By the time I got to the last few chapters, I was skimming through the pages just to get the novel over with.
A Discovery of Witches is followed by an equally long sequel, Shadow of Night, and ends with The Book of Life (another door stopper). Honestly, I don’t know what else the author can write about in the other two novels, but I’m not sticking around to find out. My biggest regret about this trilogy is that I bought all three books even before starting A Discovery of Witches; and they weren’t exactly cheap either! Not only was this trilogy a waste of time, it was a waste of money as well! Do yourselves a favor and stay away from this trilogy! A television adaptation is coming out in 2018, with Matthew Goode (Henry Talbot from Downton Abbey) playing Matthew Clairmont, and Teresa Palmer as Diana Bishop. I can’t help but think Teresa Palmer was given the role because of her resemblance to the actress who played Bella from the Twilight Saga. The tv adaptation may prove better than the series, but without much to go on, I highly doubt it.
A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy #1) – Deborah Harkness
Penguin; 576 pages (paperback)
Personal rating: 1/5