A Discovery of Witches (The All Souls Trilogy, Book One)

discovery of witchesThe Short Version: Diana Bishop is a historian – and a witch.  But she tries to suppress that latter part.  Thinking she’s done pretty well thus far, she finds herself working on some alchemy research at Oxford when she accidentally comes into contact with a mysterious magical manuscript.  Suddenly all manner of witches, vampires, and daemons are flooding the Bodleian Library and Diana finds herself falling in love with one of the vamps.  Soon, they’re on the run as the mysteries of the manuscript and of Diana’s nacent powers begin to be revealed…

The Review: I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting when I came to this novel.  It has an impressive concept, with witches and vampires and Oxford… so I guess I was expecting something a bit more than a highbrow sibling to 666 Park Avenue.  Not that I have a problem with that – it just wasn’t what I anticipated.  As a result, my reactions to this novel are inseparable from what I expected I’d be reading.

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first: the book borders, at times, on chick lit.  AGAIN, not that there’s anything wrong with that.  But Diana’s long loving looks at her vampiric suitor (not a spoiler because if you can’t figure out that that’s going to happen within like ten pages…) get a little old after a while and her insistence that their love is oh so complete despite having known each other for like three weeks feels ridiculous, especially in the face of all of these awful things Matthew does that she then writes off as okay because he loves her.  Harkness sets up several opportunities for Diana to doubt Matthew and genuinely doubting him would’ve been an interesting plot choice.  But instead she doubts him and then gets over it in the space of, like, a page.  It’s just rude to the reader, really.

Also, Harkness doesn’t get a free pass because Diana is such an independent woman who bickers with her man over whether he’s allowed to do basic chivalric things like open her door for her – or more intense things, like get between her and danger.  It all feels so damn rote and like she was making Diana that character in order to get away with the whole “dark prince charming” thing.  You can’t have your cake and eat it, too – although I’ll admit that she (Harkness) does come close at times.

The novel is full of page-turning moments, I’ll give her that.  The fact that Diana is often kept in the dark means that the reader, too, is unsure of everything that’s happening outside of the present tense action – so there’s a healthy dose of ‘RUN!’ happening and then when you stop to catch your breath, you get some of the reason as to why it is you had to run.  That said, I was confused as to why several third person chapters were spaced in and about the first two-thirds of the otherwise first-person novel.  Seeing what Matthew was up to was not a bad thing, certainly, but it was confusing to experience his point of view and then have it mostly taken away as the story became more wrapped up in Diana.  It felt unnecessary – except perhaps to further the plot in certain ways.  I just missed having those ways at the author’s disposal later in the novel as it made some of the exposition feel clunky at best.

None of the things I’ve said so far should be taken as outright criticism.  They’re minor tweaks, I suppose.  The real criticism I have to level at this novel is that, at nearly 600 pages, it is far too long for very little actual action.  There is a whole lot of scene setting, which isn’t all that bad – I enjoyed a glimpse into the Bodleian and into a French castle and visiting upstate New York in October is never a bad thing – but it just felt like a lot of variations on the same theme.  Indeed, that’s sort of my lasting impression of the novel: that the author plays out nearly every single variation of a given theme.  Matthew may have lied – no he didn’t! – well kind of but it was to protect Diana; Diana doesn’t want to use her magic; forbidden romance with a dash of equal rights proselytizing; vampires want blood but must resist!; unexpected magic usage! – all of those, rinse, repeat.  Everything about this novel feels like spinning various wheels in order to set up the next novel – which, admittedly, seems like it’ll be genuinely way more exciting and I’m already anticipating when I’ll be able to read it.

But I also feel a little cheated.  As good as this novel is – and it is quite good, the writing is smart and even when it’s repetitious it’s still engaging – I really hate authors who spend most of the first novel setting up the various pieces for battle.  There are several chess metaphors in this book and while a three-book trilogy allows a level of luxury in getting the various parts to their proper places on the board… This book easily could’ve been a hundred pages shorter with less laughable character development (no one here – except maybe Hamish and Marthe – feels truly unique/original to the genre) and been just as worthwhile a read.

Rating: 4 out of 5.  Despite the flaws and narrative “???” moments, I really enjoyed this book.  Laughed out loud several times and when I was getting bored with all the steamy nearly-romance-novel petting, some moderately unique twist on the witch/vampire/demon/supernatural world would leap out.  I loved the brief reference to Lestat, the ghosts in Diana’s aunts’ house (indeed, the house in general), and the shadow universe that mirrors ours but is structured of the three other types of humanoid beings.  Also, the heavy DNA aspect – looking at the genetics of it all – was refreshing and damned smart.  A little too on-the-nose when Diana is revealed to have every genetic marker for every witch trait ever but I didn’t mind it so much simply because it was revealed in a 21st Century way, which is something a lot of novelists seem to have trouble handling.  It made the book feel contemporary without showing the effort.

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