Skip to main content
review: fiction

Deborah Harkness

Deborah Harkness's debut novel, A Discovery of Witches, has been generating a lot of buzz; with multiple translation rights sold, it seems poised to become a blockbuster. The novel is chock full of appealing elements: Oxford, hidden manuscripts, secret societies and artifacts, history, science and magic. Not to mention witches and vampires and demons, oh my. While fervently hoping for The Historian meets The Golden Compass, what I got was Twilight meets The Da Vinci Code, via Harlequin Romance. That, alas, is the problem with A Discovery of Witches - it's a romance trying to masquerade as something more erudite.

We begin with protagonist Diana Bishop, a Yale professor and Oxford scholar - and non-practising witch. At the Bodleian Library, Diana encounters a mysterious manuscript that sets her repressed witch senses a-tingle. Unfortunately, other witches, demons, and yes, vampires have witnessed the resurfacing of this manuscript and are desperate to get their hands on it.

Enter Matthew Clairmont, geneticist, yoga aficionado, wealthy aristocrat and tall, dark and brooding vampire. Diana literally - literally! - trips and falls into his arms. (When did clumsiness in women become code for cuteness?) But Diana's flaws are minor. Even though she is in denial of her witchy gifts, it turns out that genetically she is the most amazing witch of all time. She has power over air, water, earth and fire! Animal telepathy! Oracular visions! She can fly! And time-travel! Of course, we are not spared Diana's endless hand-wringing about not wanting to use her powers.

Matthew and Diana are drawn to each other, but congress between vampire and witch is a big no-no, and the would-be lovers invoke the ire of the Congregation, a sort of judicial body. They flee Oxford to the family castle in rural France; while there, they realize they're in love and get married. Sort of: Matthew declares his love for Diana out loud, which, in vampire-speak means they're now wed.

In a coy twist, they don't actually consummate the marriage but do indulge in some heavy petting. It's Edward and Bella, grown up, and still not doing it. Harkness even re-virginizes Diana; she has had casual (but discerning!) relationships with a few men, but her relationship with Matthew is about love, so it's like she's a virgin again, having never experienced such emotional commitment during sex. Of course, they're not actually having sex, as Matthew Wants to Wait.

Further autocratic and faintly misogynistic soliloquies from Matthew abound; he vacillates between sweeping Diana off her feet (again, literally) and physically restraining her when he doesn't approve of her actions. Of course, this is perfectly okay, because he's a vampire, and they're just like that. Diana stamps her pretty little foot and insists she's her own woman, and Matthew allows her to do what she wants - unless it's important that he's in charge. Because their lives might depend on her obedience.

The sexual politics of the book are often appalling, but almost as offensive is the writing. This sentence, for example, should not have been allowed in any novel, ever: "Matthew laughed, and the sound was as deep and smoky as his eyes." What makes it even more frustrating is that Harkness is an engaging writer on subjects that clearly interest her, like history. But when it comes down to character relationships, the novel is filled with the most irritating tropes of romance fiction, and none of the beautiful language you might expect from a professor who has a passing familiarity with more than just modern-day potboilers. To make matters worse, no one really "says" anything in the book. They do, however, "growl" and "whisper." There's much "gasping" as well. And a lot of "everything went black." For a 21st-century woman, Diana really does faint a great deal.

The really sad thing is that Harkness, who has lived in Oxford, manages to evoke absolutely none of the charm of that city. Nor of rural France, or even middle America. Really, the book could be taking place almost anywhere. Add the awkward info dumps, wandering point of view and frequently silly language, and what you end up with is a weighty tome that could have used some judicious editing.

And when I finally reached the end, it was only to the horrifying realization that none of the major plot threads would be wound up. Instead, Diana and Matthew set off to travel back in time to the Elizabethan period so that she can learn to harness her (amazing!) witchy powers, because only the witches of the past have the knowledge she needs. Obviously, there will be a sequel. On the bright side, Harkness's forte is history, so perhaps Book Two, set in the 16th century, will come off with some verisimilitude.

Despite its many problems, A Discovery of Witches is sure to become a massive bestseller, and will be clutched fervently to many a heaving bosom. Alas, the whole thing has worn me out, and I must now retire to my fainting couch with a cold compress and a vial of smelling salts. (Because, you know, that's what women today are like.)

Sandra Kasturi is a Toronto writer, editor and publisher, and author of The Animal Bridegroom.