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Deborah Harkness – A Discovery of Witches

January 3, 2012

162. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (2011)
All Souls Trilogy, Book 1

Length: 587 pages
Genre: Fantasy

Started: 13 December 2011
Finished: 22 December 2011

Where did it come from? The library (via their ebook rentals service. It’s the first time I tried it, and man, is it slick.)
Why do I have it? I’m pretty sure I first saw it in Shelf Awareness, and I was in the mood for something absorbing but relatively fluffy.

In this long book, we
discover lots of witches,
but no real ending.

Summary: Diana Bishop is the last in long line of witches that stretches back to Rebecca Bishop of Salem. But she doesn’t use her magic in everyday life, preferring to do her research – as a historian of science – the old-fashioned way. However, during the course of her research, she stumbles across a powerfully magical alchemical manuscript, that no one has seen in centuries. Now she’s the center of attention for every supernatural creature in Oxford – witches, demons, and vampires alike – but none more so than Matthew Clermont, a geneticist/vampire. Diana does her best to resist his advances, but she finds herself strangely drawn to him. Matthew claims he wants to protect her, but can she believe him, or is he too only after the manuscript? And if she does fall for him, will she be putting herself in even greater danger?

Review: My reaction to this book is being very strongly colored by its ending, so I’m going to address that first, and then once that’s off my chest, we’ll see if I can talk about the rest of the book in a slightly less biased manner.

My problem with the ending? There isn’t one. I did not realize that this book was only the first in a trilogy until I’d turned the last page and absolutely nothing had been resolved. I suppose I should have started to get suspicious at page 500 or so, when instead of anything coming to a head (let alone being resolved), Harkness was still introducing new story elements and plot threads. If I’d known that it wasn’t a stand-alone when I started, I probably would have reacted less badly, but as it was, I finished the book intensely frustrated and annoyed.

In retrospect, the fact that it’s the first in a trilogy explains a lot about the general plotting of the story. Throughout, I had the feeling that the book couldn’t quite figure out what it wanted to be. I had thought it was going to be Oxford and library-centric, and for 200 pages it was, and then there’s a shift to France and vampire history, and then once I’d settled into that, there’s another jump to Salem and the mechanics of witchcraft. It sort of feels like the introduction to several books pasted together, rather than being a single story with a cohesive beginning, middle, and end. There are a lot of elements in play at any one time, and while individually they’re all interesting, together they leave the book feeling jumbled and not quite fully developed.

Even ignoring the weird plotting, this book had a number of issues. The characters felt a little flat to me, and I don’t think I found Matthew as charming as I was supposed to, which made it hard to get fully into the romance aspect of the story. (He spends a lot of time bossing Diana around, although at least he acknowledges this when she calls him on it.) The writing was workmanlike, nothing terrible but nothing particularly elegant either, with a tendency to be a little wordy and to engage in some pretty major infodumping.

(And let’s not get me started on the biology aspect of the book. Matthew’s research in genetics plays a fairly major role in the story, and while there were not *too* many blatant mistakes (although there were some), there were a lot of things that made it clear that it was science as written by a historian. For example, as Diana is learning about Matthew’s various career changes over his vampiric lifespan, she says “Someday you’ll have to explain to me the relationship between neuroscience, DNA research, animal behavior, and evolution. They don’t obviously fit together.” Really? My dissertation committee would be surprised to hear it.)

But, for all of my crankiness, what I wanted when I picked this book up was something that would hold my attention, keep me reading, and be a nice and relatively fluffy distraction from holiday travel and stress. And, on all three of those counts, this book succeeded; I got hooked into the story, I was interested in what would happen next, and I read it straight through several very long flights. So take all of my complaining above with a grain of salt; none of it was enough to make me stop reading, and I’ll most likely be picking up the sequels… in the hopes that they will feature a resolution to at least some of the six million different story threads introduced in this book. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: It’s kind of a jumble of story elements (vampires, witches, history, libraries and old manuscripts, secret religious orders, supernatural politics, genetics, romance, mystery, etc.), but if enough of them sound interesting, or if you’re interested in a vampire romance in which the girl can hold her own in a fight, it’s probably worth a shot. Just be aware going in that it’s not at all a stand-alone novel, and that few of the questions it raises will be answered until later in the series.

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First Line: The leather-bound volume was nothing remarkable.

Some More Biologist Griping:

“Welcome to the history lab.” The blue light made his face look whiter, his hair blacker. “This is where we’re studying evolution. We take in physical specimens from old burial sites, excavations, fossilized remains, and living beings, and extract DNA from the samples.” Matthew opened a different drawer and pulled out a handful of files. “We’re just one laboratory among hundreds all over the world using genetics to study problems of species origin and extinction. The difference between our lab and the rest is that humans aren’t the only species we’re studying.” – pg. 155

In that last line, Matthew is using “species” to mean variety of supernatural humanoids – vampires, demons, witches – but if you read “species” to mean “species,” then this becomes laughably false. What about the hundreds if not thousands of labs that study animal and plant speciation?

“Beatrice’s nuclear DNA has fewer markers common among witches. This indicates that her ancestors, as the centuries passed, relied less and less on magic and witchcraft as they struggled to survive. Those changing needs began to force mutations in her DNA – mutations that pushed the magic aside.” – p. 160

Argh, this is teleological thinking – the idea that external conditions or some final goal can cause purposeful or directed changes. It’s a major misconception in popular descriptions of evolutionary theory, and it’s enough to put most biologists’ teeth on edge. Mutations are random – not dictated by external conditions – and then the mutations that are best suited to those external conditions are the ones that get passed down to future generations. There’s also a hint of Lamarckism in there – the idea that what one of these ancestors did during their lives determined which traits their offspring would receive – that is also just not how genetics works. At least, not human genetics. Maybe all of the magical power of witch genes make things work that way. Let’s just say a wizard did it and move on.

“Vampires mate the way lions do, or wolves,” he explained, sounding like a scientist in a television documentary. “The female selects her mate, and once the mate has agreed, that’s it. They’re mated for life, and the rest of the community acknowledges their bond.” – pg. 354

This is, charitably interpreted, vastly oversimplified, if not plain wrong. It’s more true for wolves – there’s some wiggle room on what “for life” means, and “acknowledges” is both anthropomorphic and inaccurate in its implications, but otherwise, it’s okay. But for lions, that’s not at all how it works. The Lion King gets some things wrong, but the whole bit about one male fighting another for reproductive access to a pride of females was right on target – lifelong monogamy has nothing to do with it.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 16: “I climbed the twisting treads to where the old buckram-covered books sat in neat chronological rows on wooden shelves.” – a stiff cotton fabric for interlinings, book bindings, etc.
    .
  • p. 38: “We spent the remainder of the afternoon in a state of détente.” – a relaxing of tension, especially between nations, as by negotiations or agreements.
    .
  • p. 234: “There were tiny incunabula and pocket-sized books in neat rows on one bookcase, spanning the history of print from the 1450s to the present.” – extant copies of books produced in the earliest stages (before 1501) of printing from movable type.
    .
  • p. 411: “Tabitha hissed at me and resumed her sybaritic attention to Matthew’s lower legs.” – characterized by or loving luxury or sensuous pleasure.

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2012 7:11 am

    Just finished reading a review of this book over at Iris on Books and she also had a problem with the (non-)ending. I didn’t finish it, mostly because of how Diana goes from strong to needy soon after she meets Matthew.

    • January 3, 2012 10:54 am

      Alex – I did get pretty annoyed with how willing Diana seemed to be to let Matthew (and everyone else) boss her around.

  2. January 3, 2012 7:20 am

    I loved seeing your thoughts on this as a scientist! It always annoys me when books get history wrong, or mislead, so I’m really glad to get your analysis of those bits. I have had this book for a while but haven’t read it yet – so I’ll keep this review in mind when I do. :)

    • January 3, 2012 10:58 am

      Meghan – I’m sure that if I tried writing a book about an academic discipline other than my own, I’d make just as many (if not more) mistakes, but it still makes me twitchy when people get biology wrong, especially when it plays a large part in the storyline. (It also makes me laugh when I see non-scientists’ descriptions of what they imagine the inside of a biology lab to look like – all gleaming sterile surfaces and glowing blue lights and complicated machines… and everyone wearing lab coats and goggles all of the time, of course.)

  3. justbookreading permalink
    January 3, 2012 7:21 am

    I liked it but I knew going in it was a trilogy so the ending didn’t bother me but I did want the next book immediately to find out what happened. There are some issues — Diana and Matthew dynamic for one — but I went in looking for vampire fluffy and got it but I can see how the science part could annoy you. That happens to me too when reading about something I know well and the author gets it wrong or slightly fudges things.

    • January 3, 2012 11:00 am

      “I went in looking for vampire fluffy and got it”

      For all my griping, that describes my essential reaction too; I wanted something engaging that didn’t make me think too hard, and anything that can distract me from the annoyances of airline travel can’t be too bad.

  4. January 3, 2012 10:14 am

    Haha… one of my pet peeves is books that don’t end, especially when the sequels haven’t been written yet. There are some authors that are merciful and kind to their readers and at least have some resolution for each novel in a set…

    • January 3, 2012 11:01 am

      Grace – I don’t know that it’s “merciful and kind” so much as “knowing how to structure a trilogy”… but at least the second book is coming out soon, eh?

      • January 3, 2012 12:10 pm

        It just frustrates me when a trilogy is really one work broken into three books instead of three complete books that complement and further develop each other. I get irritated when I have to wait months or years to continue a story that didn’t end.

  5. January 3, 2012 12:40 pm

    My sister loved this book but I don’t think it’s for me.

  6. momthewriter permalink
    January 3, 2012 5:24 pm

    I coulden’t wrap my head around this book. Also I cant find where to follow your blog?? I love it.

    • January 5, 2012 1:39 pm

      MtW – If you’re logged into wordpress, there should be a button on the grey bar at the top of the screen. Glad to have you!

  7. January 3, 2012 8:56 pm

    hm, you raised some points that I would never really have thought about. My biggest worry with this book is the direction the romance is going in terms of how ‘needy’ Diana is getting to be. I still really enjoyed the book, but I am not sure what to expect from book 2.

    • January 5, 2012 1:40 pm

      Kailana – Even though I initially picked it up as a fluffy romance-y book, the romance is actually the part of the story that I’m least interested to see where it goes in book 2…

  8. January 4, 2012 1:37 am

    Almost 600 pages and no resolution, are you freaking kidding me??? HULK SMASH

    • January 5, 2012 1:41 pm

      heidenkind – Hahahaha, yeah, that was my reaction when I got to the last page, too.

  9. January 4, 2012 12:13 pm

    I love your biologist gripes, Fyrefly! If you’re going to make one of your major characters a biologist then surely he should be realistic, shouldn’t he? (even if he is a vampire). Is the biology important to the plot, or could Matthew have been a journalist or an economist with equal success?

    (Also loved your comment “Let’s just say a wizard did it and move on.”)

    • January 5, 2012 1:45 pm

      Ela – No, the biology is pretty important to the plot… the second quote in my griping section, about witch genetics, is illustrative of one of the (six million) important plot threads. It’s a cool idea, and mostly it’s handled just fine, but there were some things, both conceptual and in terms of word choice, that made it really clear that it wasn’t written by a biologist.

      And ever since the Lucy Lawless/Xena episode of the Simpsons, “a wizard did it” has been my favorite explanation for plot holes. It’s even more fun in books like this one that have actual wizards. :)

  10. January 13, 2012 7:50 am

    I don’t think this one is for me. But I do like the pretty cover. Sparklies

  11. Sme permalink
    April 19, 2012 6:32 pm

    Good info on the scientific flaws. Why should an author and professor with the resources of Diana Harkness ask an expert from the biology department to check her facts??

    Was it a love story? Yes, but not enough love. How bout paranormal suspense? Yes, but the suspense suffered from TMI-itis. A fantasy? Yes, but not enough fantastical action. Scifi? Apparently, the science is lacking.

    Not a bad story, a cut above mediocre. Thanks goodness I did not read it, but listened to CDs bought used. It was a good enough way to pass the time while driving and entering data.

    I will read sequel to see if all the introductory info goes anywhere. If book 2 is also mostly conversations, info dumps ( apparently flawed in terms of genetics) and long- winded descriptions, I’ll probably pass on book 3.

    ADoW was disappointing, in part because I expected more. Just too many info dumps on old manuscripts and genetics that went too long and contributed little to the plot, too many disks where nothing actually HAPPENS beyond descriptions of wine, herb tea, castles, towers, and libraries ( I did enjoy the living witch-house in Salem)…mostly, it felt like we were waiting for the big love scene, but for 600 pages, it better be good! nothing so special there either). I almost gave up when the book took a left turn towards the Templars and the Knights of Lazarus, because it felt like another red herring. I kept thinking, “Where was anything going!??”

    The ending was inconsiderate, and smacked of smarmy salesmanship. At the end of book 1 of a trilogy, there should either be a major nail-biting cliff-hanger (Tolkien), something really heartrending ( death of Dumbledore) or some sense of momentary resolution (Lewis, each of the Chronicles of Narnia).

  12. September 24, 2013 1:18 pm

    Hi
    I love your blog! I enjoyed reading this book as when I picked it up I thought it would be good and I like this type of genre and historical fiction. But the fact it ended suddenly and I had to wait for the next book was so annoying. Diana is supposed to be independent but clearly isn’t in the book and agree she is a bit needy when Matthew comes on the scene. Must be his charm! ;-) Although he is a bit cool and calm for me. Alot was happening in the book and there was alot of info to take in but I have read the next book (checking your blog on that out next!) and waiting for the 3rd one.

    Anita
    (anitasbookbag.co.uk)

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