A friend asked me to join her online book club. I accepted. This book, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, was the first book for the summer. In it, a young woman researching alchemy at a library at Oxford accidentally comes across a long-lost alchemy text scrap. She didn’t ask for it, so after a cursory glance, she sends it back. The woman in question, Diana Bishop, is a witch who denies the use of her magic.
After finding and returning the book, Diana soon finds herself being scrutinized by a number supernatural beings, divided in this world into vampires, witches, and daemons. One vampire in particular, Matthew de Clairmont, takes an interest in Diana as well, and soon the two are dodging various powers while trying to figure out the mystery of the missing text and why everyone wants it so badly.
Well, how was the book itself? Some SPOILERS follow.
In a nutshell, it was not for me.
The problem for me is the book featured one of the tropes that many modern urban fantasy novels use that I can’t stand. That’s the supernatural love interest angle. Matthew and Diana fall in love with each other very, very quickly. And it’s an all-consuming love, which seems fairly inappropriate for two people who’ve known each other all of a month or so by the time the book ends. Diana when we meet her has magical potential, but she has always denied it due to how her parents died when she was a kid. Raised by her two aunts (give Harkness credit for using same-sex marriage as an underlying theme, starting with the two aunts who raised Diana, only one of whom is a blood relative), Diana can’t or won’t use her magic. When she first encounters Matthew, she knows exactly what he is (supernaturals all know each other more or less by sight), and though she finds him scary and intimidating, she still manages to resist his charms somehow.
And while Diana is the narrator for most chapters, Harkness has a couple chapters without her that allows the reader to see other characters’ perspectives. We learn Matthew is totally in love with Diana, and even sneaks into her room to watch her sleep and look around her stuff a bit.
Wait, a vampire watching a woman sleep? That sounds familiar.
It isn’t long before Diana falls just as hard for Matthew. Why? I don’t know. She just does. Really, this is the problem with the supernatural love interest in many works: the defining characteristic of the love interest is the love interest is really hot. That’s it. Harkness herself is an academic, so while the research stuff involving the old alchemy texts is fairly true-to-life, she’s a first time novelist here, and it shows a bit. Her pacing and characterization are not all that good.
I mean, aside from being totally in love with each other, what defining characteristics do either Diana or Matthew possess? I can’t say for certain. Mostly, I would say that Matthew is a controlling figure. When he and Diana make a trip to his home in France to meet his vampire mother, he tells Diana to sleep something like six times before they leave, on the flight, and once they get to the house. And she does. Every time. He insists he is dangerous. She doesn’t believe he will ever hurt her. She wants to have sex with him. He refuses for…reasons. Even after the two get married. And it’s vampire-married, where all it takes is for each partner to tell the other they love each other. Even though Diana knows full well Matthew has killed people, she doesn’t mind. He even leaves for a while and kills someone before he gets back, a minor character that had committed a minor offense. She just shrugs it off.
And that’s a problem. A human being behaving like Matthew, controlling his partner and constantly telling her what to do, making plans on her behalf without telling her, that sounds more like abuse than love. But nobody sees a problem with any of this, because supposedly that’s just what vampires are like.
So, we have two people with very little personality, totally in love with each other, holding off on sex, where he talks about being a killer and dangerous while watching her sleep and making plans without her knowledge, getting married very quickly, and she just keeps going along with it. That really does sound familiar…
A good two hundred or so pages in the middle of the book are devoted to how much Matthew and Diana love each other. Whatever plot involving the manuscript and her research is more or less forgotten during that period. Diana is basically Bella Swan with a graduate degree.
The thing is, there are ways to make the supernatural love interest work. One of my preferred urban fantasy series is Craig Schaefer’s Daniel Faust books. Schaefer’s Faust also has a supernatural love interest, a succubus named Caitlyn. And though I almost certainly groaned in my head when I saw the two start to hook up in the first book of that series. I came around on that relationship in part because Schaefer made both Daniel and Caitlyn actual characters with views, opinions, and disagreements. And Schaefer does that with all his major characters (and like Diana, Daniel was an orphan raised by a gay couple who practiced magic). I didn’t sense a lick of that between Diana and Matthew or most of the other characters, many of whom had at best two distinct personality traits.
Which is a bit of a shame. The central mystery and the setting Harkness sets up are potentially intriguing. The problems erupt from the bad pacing that forgets that mystery in favor of the love story and characters that seem almost interchangeable. When she finally does get that plot back on track, and she does so at a glacial pace for a book that clocked in at 580 pages or so, the book ends with a cliffhanger of Matthew and Diana time walking. I just couldn’t get into this one, and I won’t be continuing this series. There’s a big problem when the most memorable character in a book is a witch’s house. I’m giving this one four and a half “Matthew’s not like that!”s out of ten. Whatever elements there are in this book that show potential are largely wasted in a poorly-paced, dull story.