Review: A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy #1) by Deborah Harkness

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Rating: ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date read: July 17 to 20, 2013
Read count: 1

One star for the story and ½ star for reminding me how much I miss my alma mater, though it was no Oxford.

A good friend suggested this book. She and I have overlapping tastes in urban fantasy, and since she enjoyed this book, I thought I would too. The premise sounded interesting, what with elemental magic, a long lineage of witchcraft, historical tie-ins, a love of old books, and—of course—vampires. What’s not to like, right?

What I was expecting:
Something along the line of Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic but with more otherworldly creatures.

What I got:
Twilight, but written for people who think they’re too good for actual Twilight.
Twilight, but written for people who want a grown-up version of Twilight.

Well, that’s not fair. It’s better than Twilight, though only in the grammatical sense. Sentences are fully formed and rarely interrupted by inconsequential thoughts, but that’s not to say the writing doesn’t suffer from quirks of its own. The word “scholar” is thrown around a lot to remind readers that the main character, Diana, is in fact a scholar—at Oxford! no less, which is a big deal! Otherwise you’d never guess she’s an academic; no way to tell based on how little she knows of actual research. These little reminders only highlight how juvenile and shallow the writing is.

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* * * * spoilers below * * * *

In terms of exposition, I would say the author did all right pulling in some actual history to bulk up the back stories and plot. Some of the little side stories, like all the wars the vampire fought in, were interesting. I liked whenever Diana’s bewitching family tree was brought up, but it never went anywhere, so that was a huge letdown. The Origin of Creatures subplot was the only thing that kept me reading because I kept hoping this would lead to something big, but once again, it didn’t. And I got fed up with dead-end plot lines.

As for the historical fiction angle, I don’t think the author tied actual history into the story well enough for me to appreciate the connections she tried to make (more like force) onto the reader. She left quite a few open endings flapping in the wind, but then again this is only the first book in the trilogy and she’s probably setting up events for a big final something.

I should have known this book was not quite right when I read the top reviews and saw how they all made references to Twilight, but I gave the book the benefit of the doubt because of a friend’s rec and because the author teaches history at USC. She seemed like a capable writer, so how bad could it be? If you have to ask yourself such a question, the experience is always guaranteed to be unpleasant if not awful.

This book is not awful. It’s cliched, repetitive, juvenile, and at times, makes little sense due to huge plot holes everywhere, but it’s not awful. My threshold for awful is set fairly high these days, so that’s a compliment, I suppose? I should clarify though. The book is not awful…as urban harlequin-style romance. It’s what you expect to see in this genre. However, it’s pretty bad for historical fiction. I think I’m being fair with this assessment.

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The first ten chapters were pure trivial YA flounce. After reading Carol’s review, I had every intention of following her suggestion and abandoning it, but I held out a little longer to find out the vampire’s real age. Then things got somewhat interesting when the Origin of Species and DNA identification subplot was introduced. I don’t mind info-dumps if they’re interesting and relevant, and these piqued my interest. I was convinced it was the book’s one redeeming factor, and so I followed it all the way down a long winding path that made little sense. And it was a waste of time. Moral of the story: always listen to Carol.

Original review can be found here.

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