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SPOILER ALERT!

A Discovery of Witches

A Discovery of Witches - Deborah Harkness Upon sighting this book in a soon-to-be-closed Borders store, I was intrigued. The blurb sounded interesting and the first couple of pages seemed competently written. Despite the huge discount, I hesitated, and instead checked the book out from the library.

And am I ever glad that I didn't actually buy it.

The book started out promising. Protagonist Diana Bishop, distinguished history scholar and professor (just like the author! uh oh...), repressed witch, tea aficionado, rower and yoga enthusiast, accidentally calls forth a magical text that every witch, vampire, and daemon in the world seems to want. Unfortunately, Diana has a major chip on her shoulder about her own magic. She sends the text back to the stacks where once again, no one can find it.

This doesn't sit well with with her fellow magical beings, and they begin a 24/7 stalkfest in hopes that she will retrieve the manuscript again. Early adopter stalker, vampire Matthew Clairmont, proves particularly troublesome. Diana is extremely wary of Matthew, and rightfully so--he follows her everywhere and even breaks into her apartment and watches her sleep.

Then they decide to team up and soon fall in love, at which point all semblance of plot disappears and the novel turns into an endless tangent about Diana's newly developed Stockholm Syndrome and how she must be protected from all the (other) dangerous stalkers.

At first, I thought that this book was going to be an intelligent Twilight for grown-ups--the main character wasn't helpless, thought for herself, didn't immediately adore her bloodsucking, murderous stalker or find his abusive behavior endearing, and didn't seem interested in losing her entire identity to the first good-looking guy who wanted to eat her. A rebuttal of Twilight, almost.

But no. Despite Diana's increasing Mary Sue-ishness as she develops every witch ability ever known, she must constantly be rescued and protected by Edward, er, Matthew.

Matthew, meanwhile, is a complete jackass. Trotting out the obnoxious "pack mentality" trope so often used in "paranormal romance" (a genre that really, really needs to be marked better so that those of us looking for "urban fantasy" won't be blindsided every damn time), Matthew is neatly absolved from all responsibility for his sexist insistence that Diana obey him as her husband and for his volatile, potentially murderous temper if and when she doesn't comply.

The past seemed gray and cold without Matthew. And the future promised to be much more interesting with him in it. No matter how brief our courtship, I certainly felt bound to him. And, given vampires' pack behavior, it wasn't going to be possible to swap obedience for something more progressive, whether he called me "wife" or not.


Apparently, this is just fine and dandy with Diana despite her previous proclamations of female independence and autonomy. And oh yeah, Matthew unilaterally married her without even notifying her, and that was fine too.

I have a theory that a lot of the current, noxious crop of vampire-themed "romance" is a symptom of a cultural backlash against feminism. Once you strip away the paranormal aspect of novels like "A Discovery of Witches" and its stunted and even more vile cousin "Twilight", you are left with stories about abusive, manipulative men who systematically isolate and dominate the female objects of their obsession. The women's identities are subsumed into the men's as the women's lives come to revolve completely around the men, while the men suffer no such mutilation of self--they simply gain an empty, mindlessly adoring, woman-shaped appendage, which is all that is left of the women by the end of the stories. Without the trappings of vampire and/or werewolf hierarchy (always patriarchal, of course), what you're left with is an authorial "boys will be boys!" with an underlying message that submission to the (patriarchal) hierarchy is necessary both to achieve happiness and to avoid violence at the hands of the vampires/werewolves/abusive boyfriends/husbands who just can't help it.

Even putting aside the issue of the horrible, horrible underlying message in this book, it still has nothing much to offer. Pages and pages are devoted to describing stilted, "romantic" conversations that fall flat, how Diana exercises, what she eats, what wine they drink, how long she sleeps, what's in her tea, how great their yoga class was, bla bla bla ad infinitum. A little detail here and there is flavor, too much is encyclopedic and boring. Most of the action takes place off-screen while Diana sleeps, or waits, or sleeps and waits. Diana goes from being subject to object almost the very moment that she decides that Matthew, despite being a deadly creature who has been stalking her, might not be so bad after all, and takes little action for the rest of the book except to travel back and forth from Matthew's vampire mother's castle (yes, really) in France (which she comes to think of as her home alarmingly quickly) and her aunt's magical house in England America (New England?), which apparently isn't special enough for her anymore.

A whole lot of nothing happens, then Diana gets kidnapped and tortured but is of course rescued by Matthew. A whole lot more nothing happens. Then almost at the end, some new characters show up who seem like they should have been more important to the story but are introduced way too late. Among them is Sophie, a pregnant daemon who was born from witches and is pregnant with a witch baby. Sophie is pregnant, and she will be having a baby, which the author reminds the reader of in nearly every sentence involving Sophie, who is pregnant. Watch her rub her belly with pregnant serenity (or is it smugness? I can't tell)! She is pregnant!

Then Diana uses her ungodly overpowered witchy time travel magic to whisk herself and Matthew into the past, because witches used to be more powerful and she needs more powerful witches than currently exist anywhere in the world to teach her reach the full potential of the Mary Sue.

In fairness, I must admit that I loved the aunts' magical house, which was almost its own character. Unfortunately, the house was the only part of the book that I didn't feel was 1) endless, unnecessary detail or 2) lifted almost wholesale out of other works.

While the author is clearly a competent writer, her storytelling needs a lot of polishing. Honest, heavy editing could possibly have worked wonders on this book; instead, it got hype and marketing. To me, it makes the book all the more disappointing to see that there was potential, that it wasn't a disaster from the start. It almost felt like the book was cut open and artificially inflated with the dull, problematic romance, which it may well have been. I didn't know this book was supposed to be part of a trilogy, since it is only marked as such on the bottom of the front inside jacket cover underneath library tape. I can't imagine wanting to read any further, though.

In short: yawn and barf. Now please excuse me while I go write a boring ode to stalkers and Stockholm Syndrome thinly disguised as a vampire novel thinly disguised as a book about witches. If you need me, you can find me laughing all the way to the bank.