A Discovery of Witches, or, Why You Should Never Date Vampires

harknessA Discovery of Witches has been called “Twilight for grownups”—one of those snotty little labels that implies that Twilight wasn’t read by grownups (it was), that there haven’t been vampire-human fantasy romances before (there have), and that the only real difference between Harkness and Meyers is whether their vampire love scenes are PG or R (it’s not). However, I’d like to start my review by saying that A Discovery of Witches is more or less Twilight for grownups, with all the page-turning praise and damnation that implies.

Instead of Bella Swan, we have Diana Bishop, a respected historian of science, dedicated researcher, and reluctant witch. She spends her time pursuing Elizabethan alchemical thought as a form of early investigative science, and pondering the cultural distinction between magic and science—much as Deborah Harkness does herself.[1] When she pulls a mysteriously enchanted book from the archives, and it mysteriously opens just for her, she does what any active protagonist would do and sends it back without opening it.

But, alas, she can’t remain a mundane historian because an extremely handsome vampire begins to stalk her, along with lots of other creatures. The mysterious book turns out to be a coveted magical text which everyone wants for their own ends, and Matthew the Handsome Vampire undertakes to protect Diana from her aggressors. A forbidden romance blooms between them, and they spend the rest of the book evading pursuers with various murky motives, and discussing their (horrible, unequal) relationship over approximately eight million cups of tea.

Like Twilight, A Discovery of Witches is the kind of page-turner that you’ll stay up late to finish it even while nine-tenths of your brain is rolling its eyes.[2] Part of the fun is the flavor of historical adventure, in which real-life historians fantasize about Something Cool happening in the archives, beyond finding a phrase in an obscure text that will make a snappy chapter title. But it’s also the sense of deepening mystery, as Harkness lays the groundwork for the next two books in the series. Diana’s parents and their brutal deaths come into the story, as does some very old and dull poetry.

There are also a few excellent characters that kept me reading. Diana’s aunt and her partner, who live in a sprawling farmhouse in upstate New York, deserve a series of their own. The house itself is almost a character, adding rooms for unexpected guests and spitting out important plot points when required. Her aunts also offer some much needed yelling and arm-waving, as they scold their niece for her poor decision making skills.

I wished Diana had listened to them, because beneath its pretty historical wallpaper, A Discovery of Witches suffers from the same fatal flaw that pushed Twilight from average-teen-romance to malignant-purveyor-of-patriarchal-nonsense: Vampires, as they currently stand in popular culture, would make terrible lovers. The only things they have going for them are physical attractiveness (Does drinking blood just automatically give you chiseled cheekbones?) and lots of money from their centuries of existence (which is actually not that appealing: Oh, you’ve been a member of the ruling class for the last millennium, rolling in ill-gotten gains while the world burned? Probably you’re a nice dude).

On the con side of the list, vampires are territorial, domineering serial killers raised in a more chivalrous (read: violently patriarchal) era, who are a constantly balancing between making sweet vampiric love to their human girlfriends and ripping out their throats. Oh, and they have cold, dead flesh, don’t breathe, and literally sustain themselves on fresh blood. Be still my beating heart.

So why would a brilliant and ambitious historian fall in love with a vampire? She wouldn’t. Matthew’s entrance into Diana’s life is predatory: he follows her home, lurks silently behind her, and watches her on her morning run on the unsubstantiated claim that he’s protecting her. In Diana’s shoes, I’d have slapped a restraining order on Matthew so fast it’d make his inhuman head spin, and started carrying around wooden stakes and lighter fluid to be on the safe side.

Matthew’s behavior after they’re past the stalking stage of their relationship would be even likelier to earn him the full Van Helsing treatment. He’s fond of orders, and manly growls, and showing Little Miss Enlightened Academic how sexy it is to surrender control to your new boyfriend. At some point they dance together, and Matthew advises her: “You’re trying to lead. Your job is to follow,” (260). Barf.

But oh, it gets barfier. Later, he tricks her into creepy vampire-marriage, and then tells her “Vampires mate the way lions do, or wolves” and that it’s “expected that the female will obey the male,” (354). No. Super no, with a side of they’ll-be-scraping-fried-vampire-off-the-sidewalk-tomorrow. But pretty, passive Diana merely shrugs, and drinks more damn tea. She has flashes of seeming self-awareness, where she says things like “I am not a damsel in distress,” but all evidence suggest otherwise.

But this is how vampire romances work.[3] They dictate a relationship on unequal footing, with all the sexual tension of a cat stalking a mouse, that’s more about power and possession than about love. In a scene which I assume is intended to be romance and not horror, Matthew tells her “I will kill you myself before I let anyone hurt you,” (281).[4] This is some kind of squicky conflation of fear and desire, which bears not even a passing resemblance to love.

When I read the blurb and saw “archives” and “vampires” connected, I was hoping for something like Elizabeth Kostova’s dark and winding The Historian, which perfectly evoked a sense of dread and Victorian adventure. Perhaps the rest of Harkness’s series evolves into similar territory—maybe, for example, Diana realizes she’s been in an oppressive and controlling relationship for the last few months and goes on a staking-and-beheading killing spree. Otherwise, though, I’m afraid A Discovery of Witches is just Twilight for grownups.


[1] One of the most frustrating things about this book is that it was written by a Real Historian, like a prize-winning Yale-University-Press historian, who can casually name drop Philippa Levine in her acknowledgements. Thus I was anticipating an extremely intelligent protagonist with a keen understanding of historical forces—and I got pretty, passive Diana.

[2] This is, clearly, some occult power possessed by most of the #1 bestsellers. I suspect such authors of meeting certain persons at the crossroads at midnight and brokering advantageous arrangements.

[3] The only vampire romance I’ve ever been cool with is Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, in which Puny Human Girl repeatedly rescues Vampire Buddy, and they team up to kill other vampires instead of having weird, violence-tinged sex. And Puny Human Girl has a Puny Human Boyfriend who is about 800% cooler than Vampire Buddy, so the whole thing is more about inter-species alliances against evil.

[4] If anyone says that to you, either arm yourself or call the damn police because that is some Grade A Terrifying Bullshit.

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8 comments

    1. I mean…it is somehow compelling, godhelpusall. And she was absolutely writing to an audience–in her FAQ she says she got the idea when she “walked through the airport and saw all the books about witches and vampires on the shelves.” Nothing says “genuine inspiration” like jumping on a bestselling bandwagon.

  1. Wonderful review! While the relationship is screwed all to hell and back, it seems the book remains a page turner and might be worth reading for the story around the romance. I’m particularly interested in the house character …

  2. There are only two vampire romance(loosely) novels I really, really enjoyed: Poppy Z. Brite’s “Lost Souls” and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s “Hotel Transylvania”. Possibly “The Silver Kiss” by Annette Curtis Klause if we want to go all the way back to my MG days.

  3. I remember getting it when it first came out and I couldn’t get past the first two pages. It was promptly returned. The author’s scholarly background surprises me.

    And I agree. Vampires are abusive, narcisstic boyfriends. Ready for this trend to die.

  4. You forgot all the yoga. 😛

    This is one of a very small list of books I made it 80% of the way through and then threw across the room. It was tragic in that everything that wasn’t the two main characters and the 250 pages that should have been left on the cutting room floor was great. The protagonists however get more and more insufferable each page. Gah.

  5. Other things mathew does: repeatedly drugs her against her will, controls who she talks to, controls where she goes and when, when he can’t stalk amd control her himself he has other people do it for him, makes decisions about birth control for her, kills and threatens anyone who questions this arrangement, repeatedly threatens her, holds her down and forces her to tell him things, treats her like a child, conceals information about her own DNA tests from her, gets incredibly angry anytime she disobeys him, and convinces her that all of this is okay ciz it’s “part of his nature” to the point where she will defend his killing and controlling to other people.
    Also, the great and amazing thing that Diana is destined for that’s hinted at the whole book? Having a baby. Yea.

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