Dr. Diana Bishop, descendant of the famous Bridget Bishop of Salem, Massachusetts, turned her back on her natural powers after her parents were killed when she was a child. Instead, she relied on her brain power, went to Oxford and Yale, and became a well-known researcher in the field of history of science. Now she’s back at Oxford, spending the year studying old alchemical texts archived at the Bodleian Library. But when she calls the book known as Ashmole 782 from the stacks, she can feel its power and she can see hidden writing moving on its pages. It frightens her a bit and she notices that soon after returning it to the stacks, she’s attracted the attention of many creatures — vampires, daemons, and other witches — who are suddenly hanging around the Bodleian. One vampire in particular, Matthew Clairmont, an attractive professor of biochemistry and neuroscience, just won’t leave her alone. What is so special about Ashmole 782 and why are all these creatures hoping she’ll call it back?
After reading the blurbs about A Discovery of Witches, this was a book I was eagerly waiting for. I love academic settings (especially Oxford), old libraries, and the blend of history and science. And I did enjoy much of A Discovery of Witches for this reason. Diana Bishop is an urban fantasy heroine that I can relate to. She spends her time in libraries instead of tattoo parlors; she prepares lectures and writes letters of recommendation instead of training with weapons and kicking peoples’ butts. I understood her goals and interests and the way that her focus on academic pursuits makes her slightly awkward and absent-minded elsewhere. I was also much intrigued by Matthew Clairmont’s genetic research into the evolution of witches, vampires, and daemons and how this related to Diana’s research in alchemy.
Thus, A Discovery of Witches had a lot of potential for me, but there were three problems that sapped my enjoyment:
The first is that the book is simply way too long. With nearly 600 pages to work with, Deborah Harkness should have been able to get these interesting ideas farther off the ground. I was frustrated that, by the end, it had become clear that A Discovery of Witches is the first novel in a series. In this first installment, Harkness carefully develops the characters and sets up the romance. There is a lot of sitting in the library, hanging around various houses, talking, drinking tea, and eating. The story covers only about a month of time and I think I witnessed nearly everything Diana ate and drank during that month.
Secondly — and this is a common problem for me in urban fantasies — I couldn’t appreciate the romance which dominated the plot. Vampires are just not sexy to me and I had a hard time believing that an overprotective, angry, admittedly murderous vampire would be attractive to an independently-minded academic. Not to mention that his body is cold and his heart beats only rarely. He spends a lot of time growling, bossing her around, speaking roughly, giving everyone dark looks, and displaying mate-guarding behaviors — steering her around by her elbow and with his hand at the small of her back, hovering over her, blocking her path, pushing her up against barriers, “scooping” her up, tossing her on horses, grabbing her by the chin and twisting her neck, telling her she’ll catch cold if she sits on the ground (a guy who sequences DNA thinks that sitting on the ground will make her sick?). He even binds her with an oath without her permission. I find this kind of behavior in a courting male insufferable. This is a common problem for me, and one of the reasons I don’t read much vampire lit, but I wasn’t expecting to encounter this issue in such magnitude in a book about a famous researcher from Oxford and Yale. I know she’s scared of what’s going on in her life, but where is this woman’s self-respect? In some ways, A Discovery of Witches felt like Twilight for middle-aged academics. The most unbelievable part of the entire romance, though is that [Spoiler — highlight text if you want to read it:] they get married (he binds her with a kiss and then tells her it means they’re married — this coercion doesn’t seem to upset her), and then they spend the rest of the book sleeping naked in the same bed but not consummating the marriage because he wants to wait until the time is right. She easily submits to this, too. [End spoiler.]
Thirdly, there are a lot of minor plot issues that just don’t fit into a well-developed fantasy, especially once we leave the academic atmosphere of Oxford and the book starts to feel like Harry Potter. Magic in this world seems arbitrary. We’re told that each power has a genetic marker, which is cool, but its practice is not sufficiently explained. It’s the snap-your-fingers-to-clean-the-dishes, close-your-eyes-and-concentrate-to-fly type. Sparks fly from Diana’s fingers, she cries rivers of tears, witchfire bursts from her outstretched arm. She is suddenly accumulating a host of new skills that make her the most powerful witch alive, but she doesn’t respond with the awe we’d expect. When she finds out that she can time-travel, she practically shrugs it off (and the physics of time-travel don’t even try to make sense).
I truly enjoyed the first part of A Discovery of Witches — the relatable heroine, the university setting, the focus on the history of science. But once the romance got going and we left Oxford, A Discovery of Witches lost its charm. I’m still curious about the blend of genetics, evolution, and alchemy, but the long sick romance dominated this intriguing mystery and the plot could not hold up against it. I may take a look at the sequel, though, just because I really want to know what’s inside Ashmole 782.