A Discovery of Witches – Deborah Harkness – 6/10

” The manuscript inside the next box was smaller than the last, but it contained interesting sketches of alchemical apparatus and snippets of chemical procedures that read like some unholy combination of Joy of Cooking and a poisoner’s notebook”

This review is only slightly late (I read it in late Dec 2011). For which I blame the Physicist for absconding to Lancaster with the book and leaving it there.

Diana Bishop is a precocious historian studying alchemy at Oxford – or rather, studying alchemical texts. When she requests a slender volume from the stacks and it reacts to her suppressed magical abilities, she sends it back in high denial. Unfortunately, a number of other magical creatures were watching that particular manuscript and are now most interested in Diana’s discovery of it; not least among them, the taciturn, high-achieving Matthew Clairmont.

That plot summary only really covers the first 200 or so pages, which were the bit that I really enjoyed. Diana is a great protagonist over that period – she’s fiercely independent and academic, considerate without being what one might term “lovely”, tired of being babied by her aunts and absolutely determined to make her way in the world with her fearsome intellect rather than with her witchly powers. Her efforts to learn to control her witchery are really quite amusing and sweet, and Matthew provides an excellent foil/love interest/general other character.

Once Diana and Matthew leave Oxford, it got rather Twilight-y (not that I’ve read Twilight, so I’m using that as shorthand for laying on the paranormal romance with a trowel and stretching the plot parameters to near breaking point with no justification at all. Except I’m pretty sure that my pre-conceptions about Twilight are spot on). Apart for some amusing character development and romance in the south of France, and some cute writing regarding Matthew’s mother, Diana’s difficult aunts and possessed house, suddenly Harkness seemed to have realised she could get a trilogy out of this if she threw enough plot diversions in, and off we went. There’s an unexpected murder, learning to time travel, a nasty torture sequence in a pit, inter-species collaboration and quite a lot of grumpy people.

So really, I would like to rate this 9/10 for the time that they’re in Oxford, and 3/10 thereafter.

The writing is very cute at times:

“Disappointed, I turned my attention from my dead family to my undead husband”

“Sarah’s worst suspicions about vampires would be confirmed if she knew they drove Jaguars while she drove a broken-down Honda Civic that had oxidized to the brownish lavender of roasted eggplant”

and Harkness has clearly spent a lot of time in Oxford, as I was only able to pick one hole in her description (I don’t think you can turn right onto the High St from St Aldates in a private car after an early morning rowing outing – I think you can only do it in the very middle of the night, otherwise bus lane restrictions apply). While Verity may dispute Harkness’ replication of the Duke Humfrey library, I thought she did a wonderful job of evoking the spirit of one of my favourite cities in the world.

I’m still not a fan of these paranormal stories, and I don’t think I’ll be seeking out the next in the series, but if it’s your genre, you should give this one a try.

Additional info:
This copy was kindly provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Publisher: Penguin USA, 579 pages (paperback)
Order A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy 1) from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting costs.
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11 thoughts on “A Discovery of Witches – Deborah Harkness – 6/10

  1. Iris 3 March 2012 at 5:32 pm Reply

    I loved the first 200 pages too. I had trouble with Diana’s sudden attachment (and becoming quite weak) when she was with Matthew, but what really made me dislike the latter pages was what seemed to be the sudden decision to turn this into a series, and the subsequent decision not to tie up any loose end. Usually, one part of a series still has a definite story of its own, but in this novel, none of the major plot points were resolved (or perhaps I do not remember correctly?)

    • readingwithtea 5 March 2012 at 12:49 pm Reply

      Nope – most plot points went un-resolved. Sadly.

  2. Chelsea 3 March 2012 at 8:05 pm Reply

    I will say that, although I loved this book to pieces, I can completely see what you mean when you say that after the first 250 pages or so, it’s like Diana becomes a completely different woman. I understand that whole swept-off-your-feet nonsense, but this is more ‘had a lobotomy’ kind of character change. And it bothered me, too, especially when it came to the scenes when she was being ‘taken care of’ by Matthew (read: not allowed to walk anywhere due to her dainty human lady feet). But I really did love Matthew, and thought that, while paranormal, I liked seeing a vampire novel that was a little bit more in the classic school of suave debonair vampire and not so much a sparkly ass-hat vampire (trust me, your preconceived notions about Twilight are most likely spot on).

  3. Teresa 4 March 2012 at 12:08 am Reply

    I thought this was a good, fun read, but I agree that the last bit went over the top and piled on too many plot points all at once to create a cliffhanger. I liked all the various bits of story. And I didn’t even mind the direction Diana’s character took because that kind of thing does happen and it didn’t seem overly out of the blue here, but the pacing was just too uneven for me to consider the book a complete success.

  4. gaskella 4 March 2012 at 9:37 am Reply

    I’ve had a copy of this for ages, but the size has put me off, although the plot should be on the money for me. Love your comment on bus restrictions!

  5. Desperate Reader 4 March 2012 at 12:40 pm Reply

    Have been debating for a while whether to try this one – you’re making me think I won’t bother. I’m imaging it would be Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell all over again (to long, to involved in it’s own world). Thanks for the honest review.

  6. verityjdo 6 March 2012 at 9:47 am Reply

    Yep – I think you have it in a nutshell. The book would have been better if it had just been 250p. I’m not going to bother with the sequels.

  7. Alex 6 March 2012 at 4:11 pm Reply

    I stopped reading just before they went to France. It was already becoming too Twilight-y for my taste, meaning the worst parts of Twilight: heroine who becomes completely dependent, an irresistibly handsome vampire who is really to throw it all away to be with her, etc. I wanted to like it so much!

  8. Ash 6 March 2012 at 8:17 pm Reply

    Here i was thinking that it is a single book and not part of a trilogy :(. First of all I was amazed by the book’s volume and as of today its still sitting on my shelves waiting to be read 🙂 I hope I get to it atleast by May.

  9. […] Reading with Tea: “So really, I would like to rate this 9/10 for the time that they’re in Oxford, and 3/10 thereafter.” […]

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