A Discovery Of Witches is that rare thing: a mediocre-to-average novel that will leave readers breathlessly anticipating the sequel. By the end, author Deborah Harkness has built up such a head of steam that it’s unfortunate when she has everything end on a nifty cliffhanger. It just takes a while to get to that point, with plenty of time spent stumbling through bland plot points about vampires who do yoga and what feels like the thousandth true love found between supernatural beings.
Harkness’ book, which ignited interest from multiple publishers and generated such buzz before publication that it jumped straight to No. 1 on the bestseller lists, is an uneasy combination of Anne Rice’s gothic vampire romances and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. This sounds like it could be either incredible or the worst book ever written, but Harkness somehow splits the difference. The “chasing obscure items from the past while one step ahead of the bad guys” aspects of the book are well-handled. The romantic angle is less interesting.
Historian and witch Diana Bishop sits at the novel’s center, kicking things off by calling a long-missing book filled with mystical secrets from the stacks of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The book is longed for by members of all three fantastical species populating Harkness’ world: witches, long-living and ferocious vampires, and artistically gifted daemons. Diana unknowingly sends the book back to the stacks, triggering a series of events that lead to an imminent war between the three species.
That soon attracts the attention of Matthew Clairmont, an ancient vampire whose interests are piqued by Diana. Soon, the two are falling for each other, racing ahead of those who would kill them, including a band of creatures dedicated to making sure the species don’t start fraternizing. The action takes Diana and Matthew from Oxford to France to the United States, and Harkness is good at putting the two in scrapes from which they just barely escape.
Unfortunately, Diana and Matthew aren’t nearly as interesting as their supporting cast. Matthew is the standard vampire with a dark past who has overcome his darker nature—or has he? Diana is so astoundingly perfect at everything that it’s tempting to write her off as a Mary Sue. Their love is based on some of the worst romantic sop, including long scenes where the two practice yoga or lie in bed naked together and mostly just talk. The romance-novel aspect of the book feels less passionate and more academic.
But as Harkness gets the characters out of Oxford and starts expanding her world and introducing new people in it, the book improves exponentially. Matthew’s vampire family, in particular, is full of mystery and intrigue, and Diana’s stateside relatives—Aunt Sarah and her partner Emily—are the book’s best characters, biting and witty about their niece’s many missteps. Furthermore, Harkness does solid work at laying down the rules of her universe and how its creatures behave around each other. Brooding vampires are a dime a dozen, but by the time Harkness starts playing around with the peculiarities of witches—who all seem to live in haunted houses that have minds of their own—and daemons, the book starts to feel as though it has a unique voice. By the time it’s all over, readers will have been drawn in. It’s just a question of whether they’ll make it that far.