Friday, 9 November 2018

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Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah HarknessA Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (Bought) - Fall under the spell of Diana and Matthew in the stunning first volume of the No.1 internationally bestselling ALL SOULS trilogy.

A world of witches, daemons and vampires. A manuscript which holds the secrets of their past and the key to their future. Diana and Matthew - the forbidden love at the heart of it.

When historian Diana Bishop opens an alchemical manuscript in the Bodleian Library, it's an unwelcome intrusion of magic into her carefully ordered life. Though Diana is a witch of impeccable lineage, the violent death of her parents while she was still a child convinced her that human fear is more potent than any witchcraft. Now Diana has unwittingly exposed herself to a world she's kept at bay for years; one of powerful witches, creative, destructive daemons and long-lived vampires. Sensing the significance of Diana's discovery, the creatures gather in Oxford, among them the enigmatic Matthew Clairmont, a vampire geneticist. Diana is inexplicably drawn to Matthew and, in a shadowy world of half-truths and old enmities, ties herself to him without fully understanding the ancient line they are crossing. As they begin to unlock the secrets of the manuscript and their feelings for each other deepen, so the fragile balance of peace unravels...
From Goodreads.

I have had A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness sitting on my TBR for years. Every time I tried to read it, I just wasn't in the right mood for it. But when I recently discovered the TV show based on the book, I decided I wanted to read it before I watched it. And while I was gripped by the very end of the book, I was quite disappointed overall.

Living in a world of witches, vampires and daemons as well as humans, Diana Bishop is a witch who has refused to use magic since her parents were murdered by humans when she was seven - except for the odd time she fixed her washing machine so it wouldn't flood, and getting a book off a shelf she couldn't reach. She's determined to live as human a life as possible, as a historian with a particular interest in alchemy. While at the Bodleian library at Oxford, looking through old alchemical manuscripts to prepare for a key note she will be giving in a few months, she requests a manuscript, Ashmole 782, that is obviously bewitched. Not wanting anything to do with magic, she sends it back. Now creatures are appearing in the library, watching her every move. It turns out creatures have been searching for Ashmole 782 for over a hundred years, and she's the first person to find it, and now they want her to call it back again. Containing the secrets to the origins of all creatures, the creatures are desperate to get ahold of that book, and danger lurks around every corner. It's only Matthew Clairmont, a vampire scientist, who also wants the book, who seems to not want to hurt Diana in order to get it, and is the only one who can protect her. As the two draw ever closer, they discover secrets that are even bigger than the lost manuscript, secrets that could lead to a war.

I should probably admit that before starting the book, I watched the first episode of the TV show, thought it looked awesome, and decided I would rather discover it all through the book first. However, having watched the first episode, I knew why the vampires wanted Ashmole 782. In the book, however, you don't find out why anyone wants the book until roughly two hundred pages in. Two hundred pages. What we get in those two hundred pages is Diana working int he library surrounded by creatures watching her, Diana exercising - rowing, running, doing yoga with Matthew, occasionally, a few conversations with Matthew, a lot of descriptions about architecture, and descriptions of wine. After finding the manuscript, sending it back, and being noticed by the creatures and meeting Peter Knox - super famous, very powerful witch on the Congregation (an organisation of three witches, three daemons, and three vampires, set up to keep all the creatures apart in order to keep the humans from noticing them - because when they're together, people know there's something different), absolutely nothing happens. For two hundred pages. That's almost two thirds of your average-length book. And that's not the only time nothing happens.

It's really difficult to talk about the plot of the book without spoiling it, because after finding out why everyone wants the manuscript, things get kind of spoilery, but also because anything of any real import happens so rarely. The last quarter of this 688 page book is the best, but the first three are filled with a lot of nothing, with something important being discovered here and there, with something major - as in the epic kind of major - happening, and then back to more nothing. And most of the time, apart from the major event, most things are discovered or figured out through conversations. So even when something of import is happening, it's just more talking, but a more important conversation than all of the other conversations had. I am normally of the opinion, when it comes to fantasy, that the bigger the book, the better, but I swear this book could have at least half of it cut, and it would have been better, tighter, less nothing, more something.

It was like Harkness decided to focus more on the romance between Diana and Matthew... but wasn't that great at writing romance. There was no chemistry between them, and no real development to their relationship, either. Matthew is beautiful, and Diana can't deny that, despite him seeming to follow her, and her being quite annoyed by it. But then he starts protecting her from some of the other creatures, and I guess she thinks he can't be that bad, because although he is a vampire, and quite dangerous, and part of the world she has turned her back on, and is after something from her (the manuscript), she decides she will go to yoga with Matthew, and she will have breakfast with him in a cafe, and she will invite him over for dinner. And it's not even like this is based entirely on fancying him. Peter Knox has made her feel unsafe, and has been quite rude about the fact that she's been hanging out with a vampire, but Matthew makes her feel safe, and he protects her, so it makes sense to kind of thank him and cultivate this friendship - again, even though he's a vampire, and she's been brought up her whole life not to trust them, how dangerous and evil they are, and to just steer completely clear. It's like she starts making choices that don't completely make sense; they're understandable - she wants to feel safe, and he is gorgeous - but she shouldn't be around vampires, what is she doing?! And then, out of nowhere, they are in love. There's no gradual development of it, and as I said, no chemistry! I just didn't really believe it. In the end I just had to accept that they were in love, because they started acting like it as the book went on and the stakes got more dangerous, but I just didn't feel it. And not at all romantic! I mean this, their first kiss, from page 182; '...he kissed me slowly once, twice in the French manner.' I kid you not. In the French manner. How hot and romantic does that sound? I mean, Jesus.

Also, I just wasn't a huge fan of their relationship. I liked Diana and Matthew as individual people, but as a couple, no. And that was basically down to Matthew and his vampire instincts to protect at all costs, and my god, he is so controlling! And there were some instances that were really familiar to a certain YA vampire novel that was quite popular a number of years back. I don't know if it's vampire lore or something, but Matthew was just out of order more times than I can count. He's all "You will do as I say, because this is how things are in vampire relationships," and Diana is just expected to accept it... and she kind of does? She just gives away her agency, and does whatever Matthew thinks is best for them to do, and has very little say. There was a moment where it was addressed by one of her aunts, and I thought that maybe it would kick some sense into her, and although she can see it, she doesn't really do anything about it. Oh, there are times when she challenges him, and does something that aren't necessarily wise, but overall, she just rolls over. And it's not just because she's not a vampire, and therefore weaker and more fragile than him. This is how it is for vampires, as we see with his vampire mother Ysabeau; vampires are very patriarchal, and male vampires laud it over female vampires, and the women just do as they're told. Mate, I really wasn't a fan. And the chivalry is just over the top! I don't have a problem with chivalry; opening doors for people and all that is fine. But Matthew would get annoyed whenever Diana opened her own car door, or tried to climb onto a horse on her own. Literally annoyed.

'"Will you never wait until I help you?" he growled into my ear.
"I can get onto a horse myself," I said hotly.
"But you don't need to."'
(p288)

I just found it beyond frustrating that he wouldn't let her do anything. It's bordering on infantilising. It's bloody ridiculous.

There is a lot of focus on alchemy and some focus on genetics, and while it's accessible, sometimes it does feel like you're being bogged down with all this stuff that doesn't really seem all that important to the story. Diana's historian work focuses on alchemy, ok, we get it, do we really need to be told all the history? It turns out that yes, we do, because it matters later on. But at the time, even though I found it quite interesting, I was just thinking can you please, please just get on with the story. Move the plot along!

Seriously, if it wasn't for the TV show, how awesome it looks, and how I wanted to read the book beforehand, I would have stopped reading A Discovery of Witches altogether. I would have given up, because it is just so incredibly slow!

Saying all this, the actual plot of the story is actually awesome! It's bigger than the bewitched Ashmole 782, it's bigger than Diana and Matthew's forbidden relationship, and bigger than other things we discover. By the end of the book, nobody is really sure what exactly it's all about, but they have their clues, and they know what they need to find out. It has a feeling of fate or destiny, or even prophecy, not exactly in regards to Diana and Matthew's relationship, but beyond that. Things are going to get epic! And the book is written as if at any moment, something good, exciting, big is going to happen... it just doesn't. For ages. And that's one of the major drawbacks of this book. I really, really want to continue with this story, and see where it takes all the characters - and there are quite a few of them, there's a large cast of really important people, but we're introduced to them in drips and drabs, so it's not overwhelming. But if the next two books are going to be as slow as this one, I really don't know if I want to continue. So I don't know what I'm going to do. I need to read some reviews of the second book, Shadow of Night, to try and figure it out. So this is a very mixed review, I'm afraid. If you can deal with nothing happening for a lot of the time, then the story is really interesting! But if not, maybe give it a miss?

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Published: 29th September 2011
Publisher: Headline
Deborah Harkness' Website

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