A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches

“It begins with absence and desire. It begins with blood and fear. It begins with a discovery of witches.”

A Discovery of Witches is the first in Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy. I’ve come to this book years after everybody else, as usual, but it seems I’ve picked a good time to read it as the third book is due out this summer. I did actually receive a review copy of the second one, Shadow of Night, a while ago but as I prefer to start at the beginning of a series I couldn’t read it until I got round to reading this one first. I haven’t been actively looking for a copy of A Discovery of Witches as I really wasn’t sure it was something I would like, but when I noticed it was available through NetGalley I decided it was time to give it a try.

Our narrator, Diana Bishop, is an American academic who has come to England to research the history of alchemy in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. She is also a witch. Not the kind who wears a black hat and flies on a broomstick, but a young woman who is able to live and work alongside humans while possessing magical powers which even she doesn’t fully understand. When Diana discovers an old alchemical manuscript known as Ashmole 782 in the library, it draws the unwelcome attention of several other beings – not just witches, but also vampires and daemons. It seems that the manuscript is bewitched and contains hidden information these other creatures desperately want.

Among the crowds of otherworldly creatures descending on Oxford in search of the manuscript is scientist Matthew Clairmont, who happens to be a vampire. Together, Matthew and Diana attempt to unravel the secrets of Ashmole 782 and in the process they begin to fall in love. But relationships between witches and vampires are strictly forbidden and the Congregation – a council made up of three representatives from each group of creatures – will do anything to put an end to their romance.

This book was a nice surprise, because I enjoyed it much more than I’d expected to! If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you will know that I don’t normally read books about vampires and witches, but I think it was precisely the fact that I don’t normally read books about vampires and witches that explains why I found this one so much fun to read. It was something different for me and the complaint some readers have, that it’s too much like Twilight for adults, meant nothing to me as I haven’t actually read Twilight (am I the only person who hasn’t?) so I’m not really familiar with what might be seen as vampire romance cliches. There were echoes of lots of other books, though. The way the story began with the discovery of a manuscript in the library was reminiscent of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (one of the few vampire books I have read) and the backstory involving Diana’s parents reminded me of the Harry Potter books.

There were lots of things to enjoy about A Discovery of Witches. I loved the combination of romance, history, adventure and fantasy. I liked the idea of creatures (the collective term for witches, vampires and daemons) co-existing with humans and doing the normal, everyday things that humans do – studying in libraries, drinking tea, checking their emails, even going to yoga classes. I loved the descriptions of the various locations Diana and Matthew visit, beginning in Oxford before moving on to a remote castle in the French countryside and then finally a haunted house with a mind of its own and several resident ghosts. And I enjoyed all the little scientific and historical details that are dropped into the story – information on evolution, genetics and the history of alchemy.

The book was not without a few flaws, though. I thought the pace was uneven – after a great start there was a long period where not much happened and while I wasn’t exactly bored, I did wonder when the plot was going to move forward again. Somewhere in the middle of the novel I started to feel impatient with Diana as she seemed so content to have Matthew protect her and make all the decisions in their relationship, which was disappointing after she’d appeared to be such a strong character at the beginning. I found it frustrating that she was so reluctant to use her magic, although I did eventually understand the reasons why she couldn’t or wouldn’t.

It also seemed that the sole purpose of the final few chapters of the book was to set things up for the sequel. This was not a big problem for me, as I already have a copy of the second book and could have started it immediately if I’d wanted to, but I’m sure it must have been annoying for people who read the book when it was first published and wanted to know how the story would be resolved!

I don’t think I’ll be rushing to fill my shelves with vampire books now, but I did enjoy this one and will certainly be continuing with Shadow of Night soon.

Thanks to Headline for providing a review copy via NetGalley

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20 thoughts on “A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

  1. bittenanwritten says:

    This book was a surprise to me too. I loved it a lot more than I thought I would! It definitely takes the vampire-romance genre and puts it on its head. I also like how the author didn’t go straight for insta-steamy-lust romance. She built this relationship slowly and with a solid foundation. It was a wonderful read. I can’t wait for Shadow of Night!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I thought the romance was quite believable – or as believable as a romance between a witch and a vampire can be, at least! I hope you enjoy Shadow of Night.

    • Helen says:

      Sorry you didn’t like this enough to want to continue with the series. I agree that the middle section wasn’t as good as the beginning and the end.

  2. Joanne says:

    I was really looking forward to reading this book, and was a little disappointed when I did. I think I’d built it up to much in my mind, and also I’d just read The Historian, which I really, really loved. I have got the sequel though, and will be reading it at some point.

  3. jessicabookworm says:

    I am way behind too Helen. I won a copy of Shadow of Night but like you don’t like reading books out of order so went hunting through second hand books shops for a copy of A Discovery of Witches/. I do have a copy now and really should read it soon!

  4. Nish says:

    Sounds like a good read. I’ve been waiting for the final book to come out before I start reading this series. I am tired of being left hanging waiting for writers to complete their series books.

    • Helen says:

      I think it’s a good idea to wait until the final book is out before you start. This one ends on a cliffhanger and I expect the second one does too.

  5. Sheila says:

    I’m always glad to see one of my all-time favorite books receive a good review. I believe that there is something in here for everyone – those who enjoy history, romance, or paranormal books will find something here. One thing I particularly enjoy from Professor Harkness is that there is so much depth ad meaning to the names, history, places, etc. Those willing to do the research can travel through history and mythology by researching names like ‘Baldwin’ and ‘Domenico’.

    I’m eagerly awaiting news about a movie for this series (it was optioned by Warner Brothers soon after publication). There is a serious campaign to see Richard Armitage as Matthew Clairmont. You can see that here: http://www.armitage4clairmont.com or http://www.facebook.com/armitage4clairmont

    • Helen says:

      I don’t often read paranormal novels, but all those other elements you’ve mentioned are things that really appeal to me. I love books that encourage the reader to do some research and learn something new.

      I’ve looked at the Facebook page and yes, I think Richard Armitage would be great as Matthew!

  6. Lark says:

    It was the pacing in this book that kept me from loving it; that and the fact that I didn’t know it was book one of a trilogy when it first came out. Still haven’t read book two; you’ll have to let me know if it’s worth it.

    • Helen says:

      I can imagine it must have been frustrating to read this book without knowing it was part of a trilogy! There were so many things left unresolved at the end. I’ll let you know what the second book is like. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      The few problems I had with this book weren’t enough to stop me from enjoying it! I’m hoping to find time to read Shadow of Night soon.

  7. Audrey says:

    I agree – I would “never” read a vampire book but I really enjoyed this one. I loved the scene where Diana goes shopping in the Oxford market for her dinner with Matthew, and the scenes with Diana’s aunts. I did like this first book a little more than the second, but the third one will be fun to look forward to for summer reading.

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