R72. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Year Published: 2011
Pages: 581

Pairing: Witch/tenured university professor and vampire/scientist
First Sentence: The leather-bound volume was nothing remarkable.
Climax: Stars burst into life at the peak of my pleasure, and a few still hung beneath the ceiling, sparkling and sputtering out the remainder of their brief lives while we lay in each other's arms and waited for the morning to find us. (A rare instance of a romance novel with no simultaneous orgasm. -M.R.)

Two Hectobooks | A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Review:
A Discovery of Witches had been on my radar for a while when one of the members of my book club chose it as our next read. I remember when it was huge after its publication back in 2011, but for some reason I was never interested in reading it. I honestly have no memory of why I wasn't interested—did I read a synopsis? I don't think so. Perhaps some of it was to do with the fact that I tend to shy away from series fiction and from urban fantasy in general. (See also my review of Neverwhere.)

So anyway, the best thing about book club is usually getting to pick up a book you might not otherwise and then having the opportunity to discuss it with a bunch of cool people.

Usually.

In this case, what happened is that I read a book that made me angrier than anything I've read in a long time, including The Sheik, which was more flabbergasting and painful than infuriating.

We'll get into the reasons why soon enough, but first here's the plot. Spoilers ahead, by the way.

Diana Bishop is a tenured Yale university professor (at age 35! in 2011!) who is on sabbatical or something at Oxford University looking at various alchemical texts from the Bodleian Library's collection. She's also a witch, last daughter of the famous Bishop witches. When A Discovery of Witches opens, she's just requested a manuscript called Ashmole 782 and received it from wherever these things are kept in the library. Diana makes some notes on the manuscript but it's a magic book with a text that's hidden by magic and alchemical illustrations that are all subtly different from what one would expect. She has turned away from magic, and so she also turns away from the book, returning it to the circulation desk (or, again, whatever).

Little does Diana know, this book is actually something that the three non-human "creature" races have been looking for for centuries. The types of "creatures" are witches, daemons, and vampires. Witches are basically exactly the way they're usually described, i.e. pagan magic users, daemons are artistically talented crazy people, and vampires drink blood and live forever. They don't comply with any of the other rules that you might expect, like not going out in the daytime. One of these creatures who has been looking for Ashmole 782 is Matthew Clairmont, who is a vampire scientist. He's also tall, dark, and handsome, and this is the point (50 pages in or so) where the book takes an abrupt left turn into the paranormal romance genre. Matthew is something like 15 centuries old but looks and acts like he's 37. He first spies on Diana without her knowledge, and then begins confronting her as she pursues her ridiculously active lifestyle of constant running, rowing, yoga, and eating like ten slices of toast per day. The two of them attend a yoga class that's held at Matthew's estate built in the 15th century (or so), which is a mixed class of vampires, witches, and daemons, led by a witch who you might think would return to the plot at some point but never does. This is when Matthew is completely defanged. They also each make each other dinner once. Diana spends a small fortune on the raw meat and nuts and wine that she serves Matthew (vampires looooove wine but I never managed to figure out what the in-universe explanation for this was), and Matthew obviously serves Diana oysters, as well as wine that was bottled sometime in the century before last.

While this rom-com is going on, other creatures are converging on Oxford, trying to figure out if Diana has Ashmole 782 or if she can get it again. Days and days after Matthew explains this to her and also takes a blood sample from her for DNA testing (he's studying "creature" DNA to try to determine why they're all getting weaker and also seem to be dying off), Diana finally tries to request Ashmole 782 from the library again. It doesn't work. Someone sends her a death threat in the form of a colour photograph of her parents' dead bodies in Africa—for her whole life, Diana thought that her parents were killed by humans while doing anthropological (or was it archeological?) studies in Nigeria or somewhere, but some of the evil witches around her reveal that other witches actually killed Diana's parents.

Matthew gets spooked and decides to take Diana to his ancestral home, currently occupied by his vampire mom, Ysabeau, and vampire housekeeper, Marthe. They speak Occitan and Ysabeau hates witches because she's been alive for probably 2000 years or so and witches killed her brother or dog or husband but I can't remember which. At this point, Diana reveals that she's really good at horseback riding because she grew up in the country (do not expect this to ever come up again) so there are several scenes involving her horseback riding with Matthew, horseback riding sidesaddle with Ysabeau, and then horseback riding again with Matthew. Ysabeau shows Diana what it looks like when vampires hunt animals, to test her. Then Diana makes Matthew hunt animals in front of her. During the time she spends at Matthew's chateau, he travels to and from England once. When he leaves, Diana almost drowns herself by manifesting elemental magic called witchwater. Then when he gets back he brings her DNA test results and also he kisses her and that means they're married now. I can't remember exactly when their declaration of love for each other happened. This marriage leads to the revelation that there is a Congregation, basically a council of three witches, three vampires, and three daemons, who enforce rules for "creatures," one of which is that they're not supposed to mix romantically. By getting married, Matthew and Diana have pissed these people off.

The DNA test results reveal that Diana has genetic markers for basically every witch power that exists.

The next thing that happens is that Diana is kidnapped from the chateau by a Finnish witch assassin named Satu. Satu brings Diana to a ruin nearby and tortures her to try to determine the source of her power. It doesn't work, so Satu leaves Diana in a hole but fortunately Matthew was an architect in a previous vampire life so he has blueprints for all of the nearby ruins and he quickly finds her and she flies to safety. Thank goodness! At this point Matthew concludes that Diana is no longer safe with him and that he needs to take her back to her aunts in the United States of America. But not before an extensive description of the bath that Matthew, Marthe, and Ysabeau give Diana after finding her. This is the point in the book where Diana stops walking anywhere and Matthew just carries her instead (I am exaggerating).

I've forgotten that vampires fly everywhere via private jet. So it's a very quick trip to the ancestral Bishop home in New York state. This home, Diana has neglected to mention throughout the whole rest of the book, is haunted and also it's sort of alive itself, albeit a lot more benevolently than Hill House. Diana's aunts are a couple, by the way, Sarah and Em. I liked them better than anyone else in the book. Sarah at least is willing to call Diana on her constant bullshit. The plot languishes even more at this point. It turns out that Diana is "spellbound," i.e. she's had magic done to her (by her mother) that prevents her from using her magic unless she absolutely needs to. Such as earlier in the book when she wanted to retrieve a book from a high shelf and was too lazy to get a step stool. Matthew's vampire son Marcus and vampire colleague Miriam arrive at the Bishop house with further DNA test results which reveal that Diana has male DNA from a twin that she absorbed in the womb and all of that twin's magical powers as well. There's a prolonged period where all six of these people are together in the Bishop house.

The second attempt on Diana's life comes one day when she and Matthew are out walking. A vampire named Juliette appears in the woods. She was created and driven insane by a rival of Matthew's (Gerbert d'Aurillac, whose wikipedia entry at least does not imply that he was a super evil pope, but who knows). She injures Matthew, and Diana kills her with witchfire. Then to save Matthew, Diana lets him drink her blood. She also promises "the Goddess" a sacrifice of essentially anything that she wants, which of course is stupid. When everyone's recovered from the latest thing, they determine that Diana's aunts aren't good enough witches to teach her anything: she's going to have to go back in time to find a witch powerful enough to train her. Because she's been "timewalking" since childhood, of course, by the way. Matthew, of course, will decide where they're going.

This summary is so long and I haven't even gotten into the review yet, so let's quickly wrap this up. Two daemons show up at the Bishop house. They've basically walked there to give Diana a present. The female daemon is pregnant with a witch baby. Then Matthew's daemon friend shows up and there are various machinations about Matthew passing on leadership of his secret society and leaving instructions for everyone. The whole enormous group disperses. Diana gets a smallpox vaccination, she and Matthew hand out Halloween candy, and then the two of them go back in time to Elizabethan England.

This might've made a good 300 page novel. I got a bit mad again writing out that plot summary, though.

The Petty Stuff


Diana Bishop, Fashion Disaster

Diana has the most idiotic wardrobe I've ever encountered in a fictional character, which is to say that it's all dirty leggings and bizarre sweaters. I wouldn't've noticed this except that she describes basically every single outfit that she wears. Here's what she wears for the dinner that she makes for Matthew:
a pair of swishy black trousers that looked a bit like pajama bottoms but with slightly more style
and a midnight blue shirt with
a funny collar that stood up in the back and winged toward my face before descending into a V-shaped neckline. The arms were relatively snug and ended in long, stiff cuffs that flared out slightly and ended up somewhere around the middle of the back of my hand.
I realize that it's been nearly a decade now since 2011 and fashion has changed but no sane thirty-something woman would've worn this outfit ever in history.

W(h)ine

Deborah Harkness, whose name I am apparently mentioning for the first time right now but who wrote this novel, runs a wine blog. I did not need to see several of her entries replicated in this book, and yet that's what I got. Not only is every bottle of wine the characters consume lovingly described (and there are many), every single character also has a bouquet of their own. Gerbert d'Aurillac is identified by Diana (not one of the vampires, who all have very sensitive noses) as smelling like "incense and brimstone," which is SO ON THE NOSE IF YOU GET MY DRIFT.

Kreacher

I'm going to get into the worldbuilding problems in a sec, but the fact that there are these three races of non-humans in the world and the descriptor that the author landed on for them is "creature" makes me want to die. "Creature" implies the above-referenced Harry Potter character.

Seeexxx

We kissed each other, long and deep, while my legs opened like the covers of a book.

Puke.

You will see a lot of people online complaining about the fact that Diana and Matthew's relationship is not consummated with penis-in-vagina sex in this book. There is room in the world for a romance, even a paranormal one, where the characters take their time with learning about each other's bodies as they get to know each other in other ways. This is not that romance. But I honestly think that this could've been a legitimate decision on the author's part, except for a few things. Matthew is the one who wants to wait but he gives no reason whatsoever. Diana is pretty much begging him to have sex with her.

First, they're not waiting for marriage. They're married. I guess. So there's no worries about fornication here.

Second, they're not waiting for love. They both loved each other instantly, of course.

Third, there's a lesbian couple in this book. The fact that such a big deal is made out of the consummation of Matthew and Diana's relationship is so dumb when they're in the presence of a totally legitimate couple without access to a penis.

Matthew and Diana are doing all kinds of other sexual things, including bringing each other to orgasm. They are having sex. This needed to be addressed in a much more adult way within the text of this novel.

The More Legitimate Stuff


Too Many Creatures

Harkness made a couple of world-building mistakes or omissions. The most glaring is that there are way too many "creatures" in this world. Diana says a couple of times that approximately 1 in 10 of the world's population is a creature. This is way too common.

Here's my math:
7.5 billion people x 1 creature / 10 people = 750 million creatures aka so many creatures
Assume: 1/3 creatures is a vampire
750 million creatures x 1 vampire / 3 creatures = 250 million vampires aka a ton of vampires

She never gets into how many people vampires need to kill and eat and how often in order to stay alive. However, if we assume that vampires need to eat just one person per year (which seems kinda low, right?), here's what that looks like for a country like Canada:
36 million Canadians x 1 vampire / 30 Canadians = 1.2 million vampires
1 kill per year / 1 vampire x 1.2 million vampires = 1.2 million kills per year

The actual number of people dying per year in Canada of all causes is under 300,000*.

Given these kinds of numbers, I'd also expect that the book would be way less Eurocentric. Who are the South American daemons, Japanese witches, and any number of indigenous vampires that Matthew encountered in his 1,500 years' worth of life? Surely to God if you're indestructible and over a century old you'd get out and see the world at some point? The vampires' physical prowess is belaboured constantly; didn't one of them ever bother to swim across the Pacific ocean or something?!

Act Your Age

Further to vampire feats of physicality, I don't buy Matthew or any of these other vampires being many centuries old. I suppose there's a handwave here that vampire psychology is different from human psychology, but living for many centuries, with many prospective centuries to come, should make very significant and bizarre marks on a person. Given the length of this book and all the historical details, I feel like the author is being lazy by just making her male lead sort of an old-fashioned gentleman who's met every famous person in history (guess he wasn't really keeping a low profile). Honestly I would think that most vampires would think of non-vampires as just fleeting distractions after their first couple of centuries of life. It's not like they don't have a ton of vampire company to choose from instead. I would've liked this book 1000x more if the author had taken her premise and characters seriously instead of just letting them instantly fall in love and have a globetrotting romance with a bit of danger thrown in.

Unnecessary Details and Plot Cul-de-sacs

So here's the crux of my issues with this book, and this is the reason that I was able to accumulate all of those other complaints: the book is way too long. Harkness badly needed an editor to cut out all the copious details about food, clothes, wine, characters who are only mentioned one time, tea, Diana's various physical activities, etc. So many things are brought up and then dropped. Let's take the "mixed" yoga class, for example. Matthew brings Diana to this class, where they meet the yoga instructor, who is a witch named Amira. This takes up at least a couple of pages early in the book. Do Matthew and Diana contact her later to see if she can help Diana to harness her magic? No. Do they use her to spy on others within the witch community? No. Does she turn out to be a villain working with Satu? No. Amira is literally never heard from again. The balance between details that provide flavour and useless filler is way off here.

So here're my final thoughts on this, because this review is also way too long. This is single lady wish fulfillment taken to its most extreme in novel form. Trust me, I know. We all want to imagine that we do all these awesome activities and are happy and fulfilled and busy and just waiting for a beautiful man to fall into our laps, and hopefully he's super rich so that we can tell him his gifts are too much but also never worry about money again, and he's dangerous but absolutely devoted. This is kind of the grown up version of Twilight, and while I read it I wished that I was rereading The Historian instead. That book isn't perfect either, and drags in places, but it's a whole lot better at evoking its historic locations and the dread you might associate with vampire encounters.

The truth is that a lot of people love this book and the other two in the trilogy. If not for my book club, I would've happily lived the rest of my life without ever experiencing it for myself. In the end, if paranormal romance is your thing you might like this. But here's my warning: if you get 100 pages in or so and find yourself wondering if anything is ever going to happen, or if the main character is ever going to stop working out and actually get involved in the story, you can put the book down at that point. If you like all the cozy tea-drinking scenes, I'm glad for you.

* My book club has since pointed out to me that the vampires don't actually need to kill their human blood sources. I am not sure where this is addressed in the text but it's a good thing if they don't.

Five Years Ago This Month: September 2014

Five years ago this month...

...I reviewed The Dark Tower. I find myself talking about this series a lot, and I think I should reread it sooner rather than later. (Not before I finish this project, of course.) Despite not being a totally satisfying ending, I'm really glad that Stephen King got a chance to finish it.

Looking at this photo, I remember why I only posted once this month: I spent a ton of time painting my deck. This is the first time in my life that I ever saw these big cat-faced spiders, but apparently they've been around forever in the late summer. Who knew.

Current Distractions, Belated August 2019 Edition

I have to admit that repeatedly over the last few days I have thought to myself "man, I should probably go and write a Current Distractions post." And then I just haven't done it. To be honest I've been in a pretty big rut for the last several weeks. I still haven't figured out how to get out of said rut, but I'm trying some different things with my to do lists and so on. We'll see how successful I am!

Swimming
Very pleased to report I've swum a cumulative total of 103km so far this year, which is more than all of last year put together. I've committed to swimming three times per week this fall, and I'm really looking forward to it (and dreading it slightly as well)!

Reading
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Bad Blood by John Carreyrou
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Watching
The Limehouse Golem
Hobbs and Shaw
Brooklyn 99