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Guest Review | A Discovery of Witches | Deborah Harkness

Image from Goodreads
If I had to encapsulate my feelings while I was reading ADiscovery of Witches in one word, that word would be embarrassment. I felt a cringing, bordering-on-nauseous embarrassment throughout its 688 pages. It wasn’t that it was atrocious, but that it was just so very silly. Fair play to Harkness, an established US academic. She’s approached fiction like a funding proposal, identifying and then promptly filling a gap in the saturated vamp-fantasy market (i.e. fantasy for a more mature female readership than Twilight’s), earning in one fell swoop more than hallowed “tenure” will ever bring her. However, it’s just so very silly.

I had a terribly uncomfortable sensation that I was reading Harkness’s deepest fantasies while I read DiscoWitches (I can’t take credit for the amusing abbreviation used by Jenny Turner in her Guardian review). This sensation was not unsupported by Harkness’s frank admission that the characters in this novel are based on elements of her own personality (not, not narcissistic at all). From the vamp-witch-daemon interfaith yoga classes, to Matthew’s drawer of Mont Blanc pencils in his French chateau, to endless descriptions of ancient impossibly expensive wines, these are the drowsy daydreams of a particular kind of academic dozing among her piles of manuscripts in the Bod. To be witness to them in such detail makes you feel – well, embarrassed.

If it was better-executed, I might not be quite so scornful. However, this book is not well executed. It’s hastily written and poorly edited (if I played a drinking game and downed a shot every time someone casts a “long look” at someone else I would end up in hospital with alcohol poisoning.) And, alas, the characterisation, which needs to work well in a book like this, just doesn’t.

Diana is a terribly constructed protagonist. In fact, if I taught creative writing, I would use an extract of this novel as a masterclass on how not to write a character. A character’s attributes have to come from within her, rather than being extraneously endowed upon her by other characters exclaiming her to be so. Just because everyone says Diana’s brave (indeed they marvel at it), it doesn’t mean she is. In fact, Diana’s a pretty pathetic character. Harkness desperately wanted to create a willful, feisty, and yet innately vulnerable main character, basically, Jane Eyre + Buffy, but it didn’t quite work out. Instead you have a deeply annoying heroine who is stupid, weak and passive who every now and again refuses to do something that’s patently in her self-interest in order to demonstrate her feistiness. She is fundamentally submissive, even in her willfulness. It’s disappointing to read such a woeful female character from an academic who must have read her feminist theory. And her Jane Eyre. Pullman’s Lyra is willful and brave, Jane Eyre is willful and vulnerable. Diana’s not even convincingly vulnerable, she doesn’t have enough inner life or complexity to be so.

And while Jane Eyre/Mr Rochester make up one of my all time favourite romantic literary couples, Diana and Matthew are but shadows of their passion, humour and egalitarian commitment. When Matthew calls Diana “witch” it’s a direct reference to the fond, amused way Rochester addresses Jane. But while it all works on paper, I just don’t feel the connection between these two composite, cardboard characters.

I did read its 688 pages, so some credit must be given to Harkness producing a decent page turner. I’ll always be a bit fond of anything that lovingly describes sitting in the Bodleian library and calling up manuscripts. I did like the haunted house, the characters of Marthe and Ysabeau, and Tabitha the cat. But all in all, it must speak volumes (ha!) that I haven’t been able to stomach the prospect of its sequel, despite its Early Modern setting calling to the Shakespeare and Marlowe lover in me.

2/5 stars

Review written by guest blogger Nazneen.


  1. Oops - I realise I should have actually mentioned what the book is about! Diana is a historian who visits Oxford on a fellowship and whilst doing so, finds that her self-repressed powers as a witch are not to be evaded any longer. The novel charts her run ins with various sinister institutional bodies, and the actual undead body of a devastatingly handsome and wealthy vampire, Matthew. Together they become an ungodly (and romantic) alliance against the powers that be. It's part of a trilogy (the second novel came out this year) and no, I haven't read that one yet.

  2. Anonymous7:25 pm

    I've been debating whether or no to read this book for a long time. The back cover always sounded interesting until I reached the part about vampires... Thanks for this review. I'm going to stay away.

  3. I started to read this book but I got a bit bored. I really did try and I liked the Oxford location but straight away I didn't feel for any of the characters. Its being made into a film so maybe I'll give the novel another try when Hollywood makes it over!


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