A Discovery of Witches

A Discovery of Witches is one of those books that’s been making the rounds of recommendations, and shows up in airport book shops.

Cover Art: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

It’s marketed in the style of books that ride the dividing line between “fluff” books and “serious” books, but it’s really a paranormal romance of the adult (by which I mean intended for grown-ups, not racy) variety. I personally picked it up because it’s set in the University of Oxford, a place for which I have a great deal of fondness after having spent a summer there studying British political philosophy and statesmanship.

In terms of Being Oxford, A Discovery of Witches was absolutely delightful. There are references to places that anyone familiar with the University district and the colleges would recognize, and the main character, Diana Bishop, spends a good amount of time running along and punting on the River Cherwell, the location of the death of one of my favorite pairs of sunglasses in the history of the world. The references to both famous places and some sort of hole-in-the-wall locations made reading this book very similar to flipping through my photo albums from that summer, and I loved it for that.

As a paranormal romance, though, A Discovery of Witches is definitely firmly in the camp of paranormal vampire romance spurred by Twilight, but without all the pesky fetishization of teenagers (that’s not to say that every paranormal romance is Twilight, of course–some of them are very different and there are those whose inspiration is clearly similar that are quite enjoyable).The warping of the vampire mythology is there: the vampire characters can be outside in the daytime; they don’t require human blood, just enjoy the taste of it; “Forget everything you thought you knew about vampires” is a quote straight from the vampire’s mouth. If you were looking for a vampire that did anything vampire-like apart from being slightly eerie and wearing black, you’d be disappointed. This guy is somewhere between Edward Cullen and late-season-5 Spike, right down to the epic levels of paternalism and being attracted to our main character because she “smells like flowers” and her powers are enthralling. Matthew even watches Diana sleep.

The book is an engrossing read. It doesn’t have the atrocious editing we recognize as distinctly Twilight, and for the most part, the characters are more likeable. Diana has her own complicated history and her own conflicts not dealing with her vampire romance (although he–Matthew–is absolutely pervasive in her story), at least at the beginning. But then, about halfway through the book, things go wonky in a way I didn’t expect from the first half at all. Suddenly Matthew is carrying Diana places unasked, insisting she not do much of anything on her own or without his assistance. We start off with this rather feminist, strong witch character and by the mid-point of the book she’s letting him carry her between the bed and the breakfast table. And back again. It quickly becomes one of those “the strong woman just wants to be swept off her feet” stories, and that really bothered me. The final chapters take this to extremes, and the Twilight analogy goes even further.

This was a book that was difficult to put down, because it is engaging, but it only passed the “throw it across the room” test because I read it on my Kindle. It’s also very obvious that it’s the first in a series, with an awkward ending that’s not-quite-cliffhanger but definitely not resolution.

A Discovery of Witches / Deborah Harkness. Viking Adult, 1 February 2011. U.S. $28.95 (hardcover)

Cover image from Amazon. Post image of Oriel College, Oxford is from my personal collection.

3 thoughts on “A Discovery of Witches”

  1. I expected him to start pre-chewing her food after a while. It was unbearable.

    I read the whole thing, but yeah, it would have gone flying at some point if it hadn’t been on my kindle. And did they ever fix the kindle pricing for this? It cost as much as the discounted book. If this novel had been marketed as a paranormal romance I would never have started reading it to begin with.

    1. At the time I bought it, I hadn’t seen it grouped with paranormal romance in print or in e-book format, though that may be because it was still mostly shelved with new fiction. Even the cataloging data in WorldCat never mentions the romance.

      The Kindle edition is still $14.99 on Amazon, which I agree is rather pricey for the content of the novel.

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