Dissecting a Debut: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Dissecting a Debut is a feature that is similar to book reviews, but I want to focus exclusively on author debuts and consider why each book was embraced by the publishing community. My hope is that these posts will give the sprouting authors a bit more buzz, offer readers book suggestions much like any other review would, and perhaps most importantly, help other writers understand what’s grabbing the interest of publishers these days.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Genre: Adult Paranormal Romance
Page count: 592
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 9780670022410
Pub Date: 2/11/11
Agent: Sam Stoloff
In Brief: Diana Bishop, a witch who has shunned her magic to focus on her academic accomplishments as a historian, unlocks a hidden bewitched manuscript that all creatures — witches, vampires and demons — have been seeking. The manuscript’s secret is tied to her own magic and to her relationship with an ancient vampire, who protects her from the other creatures who start following her after she returns the manuscript. Diana has to learn how to use her magic and unravel the mystery of the manuscript.

The main thing that stood out to me about this book was that I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN. Granted, it was a poor choice to experiment with an Audible edition. I kept wanting to read faster, but the narrator keeps up a nice slow and steady pace. With the length of A Discovery of Witches combined with the constant feeling of suspense it invokes on the reader, I spent an entire week carrying around my kindle and earbuds as I did the laundry, made dinner, and commuted back and forth to work.

Have you ever heard the comment from editors or agents that they know a manuscript is good when they miss their subway stop while reading it? That’s why this book got attention. There’s nothing particularly beautiful about the writing, and the characters feel like pieces of other characters we have read in other vampire, witch, demon, and other otherworldly stories. But from the moment Diana pulls out the bewitched manuscript, which she is holding in the very first sentence of the book, the reader is constantly aware that something is about to happen and must keep reading until it does (at which point, something else is about to happen).

Part of that is because Harkness uses two different genres of suspense. She deftly balances the suspense of unknown danger (a la Harry Potter series) and the suspense of romance (a la Fifty Shades). It’s hard to miss the similarities between Matthew, the ancient, wealthy vampire who is naturally protective and falling for Diana against the odds, and the Fifty Shades dom Christian with all his wealth and controlling habits. As sales have proven, this sort of passionate but dangerous romance catches a reader’s attention.

But even without the romance, the plot is captivating, and it follows a very clear line from rising action to climax and then denouement. Other witches are menacing, Diana’s magic is sparking, her aunts are worrying, and a vampire who hates witches is helping her. Diana starts to become more physically active, Matthew becomes more protective, witches send death threats. Diana escapes with Matthew only to be captured and tortured to the brink of death, wherein she discover’s a major piece of the secret.

Personally, I was wooed by the historical details, how Diana is related to Bridget Bishop, the first to die in the Salem Witch Trials, how Matthew has lived since 500 AD has known most historical figures since that time, how the manuscript is the otherworldly equivalent to Darwin’s Origin of Species. The historical details feel like bonus, but they’re what would make this book unique to me in a market flooded with vampire romances. They’re also what make this author stand out. Harkness is a historian with a doctorate from U.C. Davis. She has published a history book on alchemy (among others) and has won several awards for her research. Actually, aside from her character’s tenure at Yale, she sounds a little similar to Diana Bishop…although she clearly doesn’t avoid magic judging by this debut novel, which made it to No. 2 on the New York Times Bestseller list.

The second book in this series, Shadow of Night, released this summer, and I would argue that it is better. I definitely see improvement in the writing and I think Harkness was really in her element as a historian in the second book since it was set in 1591 rather than present day. Harkness’ work is an excellent example of a writer molding her academic or professional strengths to a commercial purpose.


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