Recently Audible had one of their not-too-infrequent sales, for which I am always a sucker. As I browsed the Fantasy section I stumbled upon this series. I remembered quite a lot of buzz for it among the fantasy and Lit-Fic crowd when the first book came out and I was curious. A fair number of my twitter book friends had read it and many recommended it with the caveat that it had pacing problems.
A Discovery of Witches is about ambitious and determined academic, Diana Bishop who had forsaken her family's magical heritage to devote herself to the study of history, particularly the birth of scientific thought. She is in Oxford researching Alchemical texts tracing when Chemistry and Alchemy branched off from each other, when she calls up a book long thought lost. Her interactions with the book act like a catalyst, sparking a chain reaction of events that dramatically turn her world upside down and catch the attention of a whole cohort of dangerous creatures.
One such dangerous creature is Matthew Claremont, ostensibly a brilliant but reclusive scientist, who is fact a extremely old and powerful vampire, who has been chasing the secrets hidden in the book Diana inadvertently opens. But Matthew quickly becomes fascinated with the curiously un-witchy witch.
I like their relationship better when the attraction is based on their mutual insatiable curiosity and their conflicted feelings about their otherness. I’m going to stick with because the mystery/tension/setting are engaging. #bkbrk— Ana Coqui (@anacoqui) November 8, 2017
This book was in equal parts fascinating and frustrating. There were a lot of ideas and characters that I adored but the pacing and storytelling left me unsettled and dissatisfied. I love books with a great sense of place and setting, and on that front Harkness over-delivers. Whether she is describing the Bodelian's reserve reading rooms, a grand fortress in the French countryside or ghost-haunted house in Upstate New York, it is described in intricate detail. I am not a very visual reader but I am sure I could sketch out each of these locations with a great deal of accuracy after reading the book. This would not be a con for me, if not for the number of times where I had to re-read or re-listen to a brief pivotal scene buried at the end of one these extensively descriptive chapters. Maybe were are supposed to feel as bewildered as the hyper-observant Diana feels but mostly it left me feeling impatient.
I loved a ton of the secondary characters, who were vibrant and distinctive. I loved Matthew's weary, resentful vampires family initially bristling with hostility, and his daemon best-friend, Hamish who is pushy and patient, tolerant and judgy. I also loved Diana's beloved aunts, Sarah and Em, who are prickly, suspicious, loyal and devoted to each other. I also liked the revelations in the second half that make Diana radically alter her relationship with her magic. I especially loved that it did not become as I initially feared, Matthew doling out wisdom and insights about her powers, instead he is often more wary and perplexed by them than she is.
There were however many elements about her relationship with Matthew that were uncomfortable. At one point I started highlighting every time, Diana took responsibility for something that triggered, unbalanced or affected Matthew. She is hyper-aware of being his prey and as result, is constantly monitoring his mood, and his reactions. It is a survival instinct of course, but it is one that should put a greater strain on their relationship than it does.
I was also repulsed by the deeply patriarchal vampire culture, which condones and affirms Matthew's desire to control and command. While the story pays lip-service to how assertive, willful and independent Diana, she is incrementally cedes more and more control to Matthew even as she grows into more of her power.
I read a lot of book with caring protective alpha-male heroes, but this was just too much for me to like Matthew for Diana. I feel like his love is suffocating rather than nurturing. I wish I was reading about Diana's parents, whose relationship seems vastly more balanced. I am not sure I would be planning on reading the second book if didn't already own it.