A Worrying Discovery: A Review of A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

Diana Bishop, heroine of A Discovery of Witches, is a witch—but she really, really doesn’t want to be. A tenured Yale professor, she has long rejected her family history of witchcraft and the powers it has bestowed upon her so that she can consider her academic achievements her own. But while studying the history of alchemy on a research fellowship at Oxford, she discovers a mysterious manuscript that opens only at her magic touch—and that instantly draws her into the darkly fantastic world that she has tried hard to leave behind: a world of witches, daemons, and (this is the twenty-first century, after all) brooding, sexy, and sensitive vampires.

The book is definitely dark fantasy rather than horror, but for all that, the portrayal of Diana Bishop and her bloodsucking boyfriend is disturbing to the point of chilling: despite the fact that Diana is an established and accomplished academic, and comes from a long line of powerful witches, she becomes a water-willed loon under the influence of Matthew Clairmont, a fifteen-hundred-year-old vampire with a French accent and a domineering nature that makes Heathcliff look like Mr. Bingley. Many column inches—in print and online—have been spent over the past decade decrying the passivity of Stephenie Meyer’s non-heroine, high-schooler Bella Swan, but it seems somehow more egregious for Harkness to have created a supposedly “strong” and mature female character and then never allow her to actually use any of her powers, or indeed, assert herself to the full extent.

Like Bella, Diana spends most of her time being romanced, rescued and repaired—in Diana’s case, by a man who terrifies her, kills one of her colleagues, has killed at least two of his past partners, threatens to kill her at least once (because he loves her so much, silly! Check out page 281!), and marries her without asking her first (in a ceremony so secret, she doesn’t even know it’s happened; see page 354). Call me a ball-busting feminist if you will, but this behaviour scores quite highly on the Rubbish Boyfriend Index as far as I’m concerned, even if he’s, like, totally dreamy and European and knows a ton about wine and has run into more famous people throughout history than Forrest Gump. But, you know, she’s a historian, and he hung out with Macchiavelli and Kit Marlowe (presumably not at the same time), so why should a few dead girlfriends stand between a Yale professor and her One True Lurve? N.B.: you can tell it’s true love, because, unlike that man-whore Edward Cullen, Matthew refuses to have sex with Diana even after they’re married. If I may paraphrase renowned sex columnist Dan Savage, you gotta love it when sex is such a sacred, special thing between two people passionately in love and bonded for life that it really isn’t important at all.

Bottom line: if you like Twilight, The Da Vinci Code and the works of Silver Ravenwolf, you’ll probably enjoy it. If you miss Buffy and kind of wish Hermione Grainger was your best friend, you probably won’t.

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4 Responses to A Worrying Discovery: A Review of A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

  1. julie says:

    Thanks so much for this review! I am about 1/2 way through it, and may not finish because of the over the top wimpishness of the character of Diane. She and Bella Swan need several years of feminist counseling and the application of extreme antidepressants. I mean, here’s a woman that should be physically quite strong, but is continually swooning into the arms of a chilly dead guy. Blech. Why is this sort of dreck so popular now? Is it part of a long-term backlash against feminism? Does it mean that attitudes toward women have not really advanced since about 10,396 BC? Yikes.

  2. Lucy says:

    I only reached the part where they run away to France and he locks her up in his tower to babysit her, before I just got too fed up with this pathetic romance (Barnes&Noble lied – they told me this was an adventure like Harry Potter, not a romance!). I came online to see if it would get any better but from your review I can see it does not. This is a book I won’t be finishing and I’m very glad I got it from a library and didn’t buy it.

  3. I’m so thrilled someone else had the reaction I did! I reviewed the book myself for the G&M here:
    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/a-discovery-of-witches-by-deborah-harkness/article4268296/
    Deeply, deeply hated the thing!

  4. Great review, Sandra! Seriously: I was muttering and swearing to myself the whole time I was reading the book. Put me in mind of the quote that’s often attributed to Dorothy Parker: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

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