Warning: there are some minor spoilers in this review, mostly about pacing, not about any major plot points.
A Discovery of Witches is Deborah Harkness’s debut fiction novel and was published in 2011. It follows Diana Bishop, a descendant of Bridget Bishop of Salem Witch Trials fame and a witch that refuses to use her powers, as she comes across an enchanted manuscript that could explain the origins of all supernatural creatures and that has been lost for centuries. In an attempt to avoid getting involved with magic, Diana returns the manuscript to the library in which she found it and it promptly becomes lost again. This arouses the interest of many witches, daemons, and vampires, including one specific vampire that might be interested in more than just knowledge. Matthew Clairmont is a thousand-year-old vampire that has been studying the evolution and creation of supernatural creatures since he was turned. He takes it upon himself to keep Diana safe from other supernatural creatures that would harm her to get to the book. Unfortunately for them, any romantic relationship between different types of creatures is banned.
This is a difficult review to write because my feelings while reading this book changed dramatically. I went from loving certain parts of it to seriously considering DNFing it multiple times. And I think a lot of this comes from the indecisive vibe that I got from the story. I don’t think this book knew what it wanted to be. I assume this was supposed to be a fantasy romance but it was way too long for a romance and lacked the proper amount of plot for a fantasy. What is frustrating is that the plot that we do get is incredibly interesting. The origins of vampires, witches, and daemons explained through genetics and an examination of possible supernatural creature’s extinction due to an inability to evolve? Sign me up! Unfortunately, this plot took more than a backseat, it seemed to be relegated to the trunk.
The beginning of the book was jarring. I went into this expecting a dark academia fantasy but got a romance for the first half, which wasn’t an issue after I reevaluated my expectations. The odd exposition, the overly perfect and overpowered main character, and instalove all made sense within the genre. The dangerous romance with an experienced vampire was hot for a bit but got old when nothing happened between them. By the way, kudos to Harkness for making the love interest a vampire but still adding all those fun werewolf romance traits. After a threatening event occurs, Matthew whisks Diana off to France for what seemed like a romantic weekend for her to recover but instead, our main characters spend a third of the book away from the action deciding if they love each other or not and slowly giving Diana her powers.
I think one of the main issues was the pacing and the setup. The beginning of the book, and more specifically the romance, is relatively fast-paced, Matthew is climbing into her window in like chapter 5, she falls in love with him and vice versa incredibly quickly and it’s very obvious so it makes the next quarter of the book in which they decide to ‘will they won’t they’ the crap out of this situation even more frustrating. The French vacation is what really killed any semblance of pacing the book might have had and the time that I considered DNFing the most. Diana’s kidnapping was abrupt and not fully given the weight it deserved, especially when it seems like the most climactic event. She is saved two chapters later then you have another 150 pages of falling action during which we thankfully return to the plot abandoned in Oxford.
There were many places where I think Harkness could have added foreshadowing to draw the reader along, it often felt like the author had just decided something at that moment that would be convenient for the plot. It honestly would have been easy to slip some hints in during Diana’s time at the de Clairmont residence.
This novel also felt too euro-centric for one so focused on history. Diana’s parents die in Nigeria and she writes it off as the overly suspicious locals killing them. Matthew fought in the Crusades (a relatively important plot point) but neither the local nor global effects of the Crusades themselves are brought up. The Congregation supposedly governs all creatures but the only members we are introduced to are from England or France. I also did not care for the way other creatures treated daemons, they spend all this time talking about how they all might be part of the same race and what that means for witch/vampire relations then turn around and talk down to daemons.
On a lighter note, my main takeaway is that I would not be able to date an All Souls vampire. Matthew was pretty annoying by the end of it, so clingy and overprotective. It was attractive at the beginning of the book but lessened every time Ysabeau reminded Diana that she now belongs to Matthew or whenever Matthew, Marcus, or Nathaniel got into a fight about who was the alpha in the house.
All in all, I gave A Discovery of Witches 2.75 stars. The plot had a lot of potential but it lacked follow-through and dragged on too long.
If you are interested in picking up A Discovery of Witches up for yourself, you can find it here: