Thursday, January 16, 2014

REVIEW: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy, #1)A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Format: Audio from Audible.com
Narrated By: Jennifer Ikeda
Original Publication Year: 2011
Genre(s): Paranormal Fantasy
Series: All Souls Trilogy #1
Awards: None

Recommended subtitle: A discovery of how vampires can make you stupid, immature and insufferable

I’ve thought long and hard about the review for this book. It really should have been a “Did-Not-Finish” but, it wasn’t, for two reasons. One, and most superficially, I paid for it (used one of my credits) on Audible. The more important reason, however was that I started off liking the book and being interested in the character of Diana. It has the bones of a good paranormal adventure story and the main characters are a scientist and a historian, both fields I find fascinating. By the time the book took several turns down paths I did not like, I felt like I was too far in to give it up. As such, I ended up feeling a little betrayed and writing a review that doesn’t turn into a long and bitter rant might be a bit of a challenge. I am going to do my best to lay out the particular elements of the book with which I personally struggled so that folks trying to decide whether to read the book or not can do so based on how they respond to those elements.

So it’s important to note that I am particularly sensitive and …ahem…judgmental of characters who I don’t feel are portrayed realistically in the context of the book. I don’t necessarily have to like them but I do need to be able to recognize something in them to connect to. This reading quirk is at the heart of why I didn’t enjoy the book.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First let me tell you about the story, which I found to be, at its foundation, very interesting. Diana is a history professor at Yale (I think? – one of the Ivy Leagues) studying in Oxford and she is also a witch, though in denial of her heritage. While doing research, she accidentally calls up a super-important, super mystical magical manuscript which she promptly returns and tries to forget about. Suddenly, Oxford is filling up with creatures (witches, vampires and demons), and they all seem to be obsessed with Diana and the manuscript she no longer has. When one particularly sexy vampire sets himself up as her own personal bodyguard, she is at first wary but then through discussing wine and doing yoga with him, she decides she loves him (within a 2 week period) and jumps on a plane to France in order to escape all the creatures and spend some time with his vampire mother. At this point I don’t know what goes on with the story – it goes batshit crazy. Basically, there are a lot of really bad people/creatures that want to hurt Diana and Matthew (the sexy vampire). They want to do this because they are bad and bigoted. Or maybe they want the manuscript Diana lost. Or maybe they are just grumpy from having to twirl their mustaches all the livelong day (read: they are one dimensional and boring). By this point Matthew has become insufferable with the coddling and clinginess and macho male over protective stuff and Diana has fully embraced co-dependency. When things heat up in France, they head to Diana’s family in New England, where they hang out and bemoan that there are bad people after them. They finally make a firm decision to do something, they spend a few days which seem like weeks preparing, and then the book ends in preparation for book two in the series.

Here were my personal struggles with this very popular book:

1)It’s too long and unfocused: So after the description above (sorry – despite my best intentions it got a little ranty and bitter), it is no surprise that I felt like the book needed some serious reining in by a professional. It starts off with an interesting mystery about the origin of the 4 races (human, witch, vampires and demons) and Diana’s ability to call a magical manuscript that had been missing for hundreds of years. What’s in this manuscript? Why does everyone want it? Why can’t Diana call it a second time? Why do the magical races seem to be declining – is the secret to this and the origin of the races in this magical manuscript? But then it launches into a romance section that derails the mystery for hundreds of pages. It felt like it couldn’t decide if it was a romance with a side mystery plot or a thriller, mystery with some romance. To me it felt like the author sat down and wrote out a first draft of a book, sent it to a publisher who immediately accepted it, published it and put it in bookstores without anyone ever editing or casting a critical eye on the story. It just felt like it needed refinement and focus.

2)The Romance: Imagine a story where the head cheerleader/class valedictorian falls in love with the handsome quarterback/class saluditorian. Sound compelling? While it may appeal to the head cheerleaders of the world, it was boring as hell for me. It felt like a fantasy for the 1%. A good romance makes my stomach flutter at the first declaration of love and/or the first kiss but hero and heroine gave me zero flutters. I think it left me feeling cold because Diana goes from being an independent, self-sufficient, intellectual woman to a subservient, hero-worshipping one who is treated like a child by all those around her. She spends so much of the book injured or in emotional despair and so much time is devoted to how Matthew, his family and her family all coddle and over-protect her. It frankly struck me as bizarre considering that she is supposed to be in her early 30’s and to have been on her own for almost 15 years.

3)Diana is a Mary Sue*: This is my biggest character pet peeve in the history of character pet peeves. She even has the insanely overused and clich├ęd “tragic childhood” which is used as a ploy to manipulate readers into feeling sorry for too perfect characters rather than giving them actual depth. It almost never works for me. Mostly because I don’t need to feel sorry for a character, I need to connect with them and feel like I recognize a little of their human experience. This is impossible with a character whose only trouble is some paranormal hoo ha and who unswervingly, always does the right thing. This is definitely not my experience with life. Relatively speaking, Diana has had a pretty spectacular and successful life up to the point we meet her, and even at this point, when things start to get crazy, she discovers she has every witch power in the history of witch powers and a hot hunky vampire who worships the ground she walks on. Basically Diana can do no wrong and even when she does “wrong” it ends up being right. One example of this to illustrate what I mean: At one point Diana must kill someone with her witch powers to protect someone she loves; she hesitates, with basically fatal repercussions for the loved one. When she bemoans her imperfection, Matthew incredulously and firmly tells her that she should be proud of her hesitation because of course she hesitated not wanting to kill someone. While this has logic to it, I personally would have felt more engaged and interested by the character if she had acted on instinct and killed without hesitation and then had to deal with those repercussions and wondered what she was becoming as threats became direr. I found her completely unbelievable and just wanted her to be awkward and screw up in a way that was recognizable by everyone as a screw up and not because her parents cast a magical spell on her.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t avoid being ranty and I apologize. I think I was especially disappointed because it had so much potential but in the end none of the characters felt authentic or even complex and interesting to me which negated any plot-based acrobatics.

I hope the things I have detailed above will go some way in explaining the specific things I found lacking so you can judge for yourself whether it is worth picking up or not. If you get as aggravated by Mary Sue characters as I do, I think your chances of liking this book aren't good.

I listened to the audio version of the book and the reader was fine. There was something about how she read Diana that bothered me a bit but I couldn’t tell if it was because of her reading or the fact that I’d had about enough of Diana.

Final Verdict: There was definitely the kernel of a good story in there but it grew into some kind of mutant Monsanto-approved monstrosity. It pushed all my buttons – all the ones I don’t like being pushed – and then found some new ones to pound on. I will not continue with this series.

*Mary Sue: The best description I have found of this is from tvtropes.org: “The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character … who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She's exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She's exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her "flaws" are obviously meant to be endearing. She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her as one of their True Companions, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if any character doesn't love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal.”


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2 comments:

  1. Well, we'll just have to agree to disagree! ;-) I will agree that I found Matthew's high-handedness infuriating and off-putting at times. In book 2, you do see more of Diana's strengths and Matthew's efforts to curb his instincts where she is concerned (along with an awesome look at the Elizabethan world.) I'm sorry you didn't like A Discovery of Witches, because I really enjoyed it. But no worries - not every book is going to appeal to every reader. (Personally, I dislike Twilight about as much as you disliked ADOW, but lots of people adored it. I'm not sure why, but I'm glad they got enjoyment out of it.)

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    1. I suspected you liked this one and am sorry to disagree but as you say we can't all love the same books - how boring would that be! I don't think the characterizations were the only things I struggled with but as I mentioned in the review I am particularly sensitive and judgmental of characters and that's what really did it on for me. It's a reading quirk I really wish I could resolve and get over because it really ruins some books that otherwise have a lot of other good things going for them. The idea of a paranormal mystery-thriller in Elizabethan England sounds SO appealing but I just don't think I could handle spending more time with Matthew and Diana. And I am right there with you with Twilight - and do feel its unfair to compare this book to that!

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