A Discovery of Witches is the first book in the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness. It’s a paranormal romance, which was all the rage when it was published in 2011. (I feel the paranormal romance trend is waning, along with our interest in lusty vampires.) Somehow, this book managed to hoodwink readers into making it successful enough to spawn, not only two more books, but now a TV series, which is in development.
A Discovery of Witches follows “scholar” Diana Bishop, in Oxford, as she discovers she’s a witch (get it?), and that there’s a whole magical world to which she was blind. Part of her new world is Matthew Clairmont, the handsome, brooding vampire who is protecting her on the sly. They fall in love, of course, against all rules of witches, vampires, creatures, time travelers, food vendors, street sweepers and anyone else who finds out about them.
I read A Discovery of Witches because I love paranormal romances, and it resided at the top of the bestsellers list for quite some time. A Discovery of Witches was also highly-rated at Goodreads. (It still has a 3.98 rating.) About halfway through the book, I thought about dumping it; every plot twist, every paper-thin character, had been done to death in much better books. I kept reading, however, because I had the tiniest bit of curiosity about the storyline egging me on. (Plus, the book is set in Oxford, England, and I am a raging Anglophile.) The ending had some fireworks, but all in all, it wasn’t anything to write home about. (Frankly, if you did write home about it, your letter would be better prose than anything fashioned by Harkness.) I was miffed, however, when I realized the story wouldn’t wrap-up, because A Discovery of Witches was only the first in a trilogy of books.
Shadow of Night, the second book, was published and, against my better judgement, I read it. What a horrible, horrible waste of my time. Any failings Deborah Harkness had as an author were emphasized in Shadow of Night, a dull, confusing, ill-conceived and poorly executed story involving time travel, which is a dicey plot device in the best of hands and here, just a mess. Harkness takes just about every interesting literary and historical figure from the Elizabethan era, throws them in a bag, shakes them up, and tosses them into scenes that require exposition of some kind. “Ooo, Christopher Marlowe is a demon? You don’t say! Isn’t that interesting?” No.
Shadow of Night was even duller than A Discovery of Witches, and as impotent as Matthew turned out to be. For instance, there are several violent scenes, involving demons and vampires and witches, that… we hear about when one of the characters gets home. No kidding. The proverbial shit gets real OFF SCREEN. More than once a character (frankly, I can’t even remember them all, by now) arrives home to tell everyone assembled about something amazing that just happened. Oh my stars, dull dull dull. Instead, why not let us LIVE the scene through the character? Y’know, like we’re in a STORY?
I must also mention that one of the main characters, badass vampire Matthew, isn’t badass at all. We hear over and over, from character after character, how violent Matthew is, how terrible in his destruction of life, how he suffers from a disease known as “bloodlust,” and how he must continuously exercise his willpower so that he doesn’t devour everyone around him. There are whole sections of dialogue between Diana and other characters about Matthew’s strength and need for blood and violence. Yet, there isn’t a single scene in which we see Matthew in all his Raging Bull glory. Not once does he snap a neck and snack on the bloody goodness inside. Not once does he tear a man limb from limb and gnaw on the marrow. Not once. Never. In fact, there comes a scene in which someone is ready to kill Diana, the love of his life, his reason for existing, and when he’s ready to deal a fatal blow? He says, and I’m paraphrasing, “Nope, I’m good. Be on your way.” Yeah, he’s real scary.
My point is that Deborah Harkness is pretending to be an author, and far too many readers are going along with it. I read once, in an article, that female readers are more interested in the world that a book creates, than in the story or its characters. What a bunch of garbage. If that’s true, then that can be the only reason the A Discovery of Witches sold any copies, and it’s a dubious reason at best; Harkness’s world isn’t painted all that vividly. The only world that’s created is a world in which everything seems to work out for its heroine. You know what kind of story that is? Boring as hell.