Wednesday, March 2, 2011

An unpleasant discovery awaited me…

A Discovery of Witches
by Deborah Harkness

The Montagues and the Capulets. The Jets and the Sharks. The witches and the vampires? Yes, it’s Romeo and Juliet all over again in Deborah Harkness’s lukewarm debut.

Harkness has invented a world with four types of humanoid “creatures.” As the main character states, “Witches aren’t the only creatures sharing the world with humans, however. There are also daemons—creative, artistic creatures who walk a tightrope between madness and genius. ‘Rock stars and serial killers’ was how my aunt described these strange, perplexing beings. And there are vampires, ancient and beautiful, who feed on blood and will charm you utterly if they don’t kill you first.” These more exotic creatures live amongst us, and mostly they just skate through life trying not to attract attention. In fact, other than painfully repetitious admonitions to not attract their attention, the humans really aren’t a part of this tale at all.

Witches, it seems, have a natural affinity for the humanities, whereas vampires are drawn to math and science. Our two protagonists are true to their natures. Our Juliet stand-in is Dr. Diana Bishop, scion of one of the most powerful and respected witch families. She’s a tenured Yale professor, a historian of science and alchemy, spending a year at Oxford. She is also a witch who has made a nearly life-long practice of stifling her magic, although she cheats on very rare occasions when convenience trumps long habit.

It is a witnessed act of illicit magic that provides the required meet-cute for our star-crossed lovers. Our Romeo is Dr. Matthew Clairmont: tall, dark, handsome, vampire, scientist. (Not to mix my literary metaphors, but he is a veritable Mr. Darcy of a vampire, and when the film is made I insist that Colin Firth is cast.) Matthew, along with a host of other creatures, has his eyes glued to Diana Bishop because she has managed to do what no one has done for hundreds of years. Without realizing the significance, she has called up a most powerfully enchanted and widely desired manuscript, which she just as blithely returns to the library’s stacks. Now there’s all kinds of interest in both the manuscript and Diana, and there is danger in the air—though that may be due to the constant proximity of this vampire.

One thing Harkness does get right in the first half of the novel is an intriguing mood of fear and eroticism. I found it compelling, and it kept me turning the pages. And turning the pages. And turning the pages. After a while, this book began to seem interminable. At one point near the end, Matthew says to Diana, “At first I was sure this was about the manuscript. Then I supposed it was all about you. Now I’ll be damned if I can figure what it’s about.”

Um, Matthew, let me help you out. It’s about race relations and a plea for tolerance. It’s about alternate lifestyles and marriage equality and a plea for acceptance. These are issues about which I care deeply, yet I still found Harkness’s message unsubtle and banal. Her use of language is quotidian at best. Her romance fizzles somewhere along the way. Once our lovers get together they’re far less interesting. I find her magical landscape to be utterly lacking in… magic.

Still, the novel was plodding it way towards a three-star review. I’m a generous rater, and there were aspects of the story that interested me, such as the dynamics of Matthew’s vampire family. As the stakes of the novel grew and headed towards an inevitable confrontation, I found myself wondering how Harkness could possibly wrap things up in the remaining pages. It never occurred to me that she wouldn’t.

That’s right, folks. I dragged my little eyes through 600 pointlessly drawn out pages only to discover that this book has absolutely no resolution! It ends on a cliff-hanger! I struggled through this mess to get to an end that never came. And THAT is unforgivable. God knows how many volumes Ms. Harkness has planned, but I doubt I’ll give her any more of my precious reading time.


  1. I am so sorry! This has to be one of my greatest pet peeves; even if a sequel is intended, given that it can take years to write, I loath cliff-hanger endings. Resolve the current plot and leave me hungry for what the rest of their lives have in store.

  2. Thanks for the sympathy, Care. I'll get past it, LOL. I'm just annoyed because I've got so little reading time at the moment that I feel this was a big waste. I'm also not the type to leave books unfinished, and that's how this feels.

    A nice woman left a comment on my Amazon review informing me that this will be the first of a trilogy. Oy vey!

  3. Hahahaha. I'm reading this now on my iPad, nearing the halfway mark, and have been enjoying it so far. But I seem to be on a tear with vampire novels of late. I'll let you know what I think during the second half. An old friend recommended it because I powered through the Sookie Stackhouse series last summer, enjoying them for what they are. Sort of like your trashy underwater fiction thing.