A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches
Deborah Harkness

I received a finished copy of this book via the publisher, Viking/Penguin.

The Premise: Diana Bishop has a degree from Oxford and tenure at Yale. She specializes in the history of science, primarily on alchemy. During a research trip to Oxford’s Bodleian library, Diana requests a manuscript from the Ashmole collection: known as Ashmole 782, and when she sets eyes on it she realizes that it’s enchanted. Diana is a witch, albeit a non-practicing one.  She’s avoided magic after her parent’s death. Yet the enchanted manuscript opens for her, igniting both her powers and a storm of supernatural creatures curious about the manuscript and the person who unlocked it. First and most formidable of the daemons, witches and vampires who show up is Matthew Clairmont, a professor of biochemistry, member of the Royal Society, and vampire.

Read an excerpt of A Discovery of Witches: @Fantasy Cafe or @Deborah Harkness’ website

My Thoughts: Before starting A Discovery of Witches, I saw that it was likened to “Twilight for adults”. I spent a lot of time mulling over this while I was reading the book. I think that comparisons, particularly to a book like Twilight may do more to turn readers off than to draw them in. At first,  I didn’t think that the comparison made sense. The narrator is a witch, the setting is academia, and nothing reminded me of Twilight, except the detailed prose. I thought: “Is Twilight the first thing that comes to mind when there’s a vampire romance?”, but as I got further into the story, I began to see where the comparison came from: Matthew is protective of Diana; he breaks into her rooms while she sleeps; he feels conflicted over his feelings; the Congregation wants to keep them apart. But is this book like Twilight? Well… no, not really. There are plenty of differences between the two books, and the concepts that feel similar feel only superficially similar. In fact, I feel like A Discovery of Witches sidesteps a lot of the problems with why people didn’t like Twilight. Diana Bishop is a more independent character than I found Bella, and overall the romance felt more mature (I could see what drew these two to each other despite their age differences), and the plot itself was more complex.

The subtitle “a novel” also threw me off as to what to expect. Was this something in the literary fiction sphere, or something that is essentially a paranormal romance? While the story has a lot of historical references, the protagonists drink the finest wine and practice yoga, it’s accessible to fans of the paranormal romance and urban fantasy genres. There are paranormal creatures, a slow moving romance that is a big part of the plot, and I didn’t feel like it took itself too seriously. There is an escapist side to the writing. And when it came to history, I think the author indulged a little, because Matthew owns a Gutenberg Bible, a bound copy of “Will’s plays”, a 1795 wine from Madiera, a 500 year old Tudor Manor house, and a castle. It tickled me to run into these things though, so don’t take that as a negative.

The one aspect of the writing in this book that could be seen as negative however, is how detailed it was. A meal could be cover several pages because each course is thoroughly recounted, down to individual tastes in the wine and Diana and Matthew’s reactions to everything. If you don’t like this thick, descriptive writing, you’ll be stopping this book early.  On the other hand, if you enjoy having a really lush picture of what’s going on, this book delivers. I found the details so intertwined with the slow courtship that I felt like I was enjoying something comforting and extra-wordy that I wouldn’t normally savor in large doses: like rich chocolate.  This writing style (all 579 pages of it), makes A Discovery of Witches the kind of book you read in installments, not cover to cover in one sitting.

Most of the first half of this hefty volume is a lengthy courtship between Matthew and Diana, with the discovery of the enchanted Ashmole manuscript as the initiator. Diana is the main narrator of this story, so most of the book is told from the first person point of view, although there are a couple of instances when the story follows Matthew and switches to third person. Once it’s clear there’s something the two protagonists, the consequences of inter-species dating, Diana’s powers, and the Ashmole manuscript come to the forefront. That’s when the story widens from the focus on Matthew and Diana to the people around them. On Diana’s side there are witches, on Matthew’s there are vampires. Witches are born, vampires are made. Then there is a third race, daemons who are not the demons you typically see in paranormal fiction. These are born from humans but possess genius and/or madness that sets them apart. Once the plot thickens, I was pleasantly surprised how much enjoyed the seamless mix of action and conspiracy against the romance. The author adds secret societies, power-hungry factions, paranormal forces, conspiracies, a house with it’s own personality (I loved this house, I want to live in this house), and lots of grumpy vampires with long lives and long grudges. This looks to be the beginning of an epic battle between good and evil, and while there’s a satisfying ending to A Discovery of Witches, it is clear that there’s more. I hadn’t realized this when I got the book, but A Discovery of Witches is part of a trilogy and sets the scene for Matthew and Diana’s continued adventures.

Overall: This is a book that I think is supposed to be shelved in fiction, but it has a lot of cross-over appeal for urban fantasy and paranormal romance fans. Don’t let the Oxford setting and protagonists with long academic credentials dissuade you, this is an accessible story with a slow moving romance that’s a guilty pleasure to read, but the romance isn’t all — the story is shaping up to be a great good versus evil tale. I’d recommend this one with reservations however — there’s a lot of description and exposition in this story which isn’t for everyone. If you aren’t bothered by the writing style, then I think it’s a good one to try.

This looks to be the first in a 3 book series.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers – DNF

12 thoughts on “A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

  1. do you know if the second one is out yet, when its coming out, or what its going to be called? I loved the first one and I just finished it today so I really wanna continue the series to find out whats going to happen to Diana and Mathew!!!!

    • 🙂 Hi Chris. Sorry, the second one is not out yet, and I suspect it will not be out until at least a year from the date the first book was published (so at least Feb 2012). From what I see online, Harkness hasn’t finished writing the second and third books (that’s from this blog post from March 3rd, 2011).

  2. I think the subtitle “a novel” is there because the title itself, “A Discovery of Witches” sounds like non-fiction. When I first saw it up on audible.com, I thought it was a historical work like “Salem Witch Trials.”

    • Interesting! I didn’t make that connection from the title, but that’s a good point. The symbols on the cover probably add to the idea it may be non-fiction too, plus the fact that the books the author published prior to this one are non-fiction.

    • If I remember correctly, there are a couple of sex scenes in the middle, one scene where someone is captured and treated badly and one death. I didn’t find them that explicit or violent, but that’s subjective. It’s probably best for you to check out those scenes in the book and decide.

    • I was curious about A Discovery of Witches, A Novel, after reading your review. I read it keeping your words in mind. I came back to this post to tell you that every book I’ve read, with your findings in mind, have been exactly like you described them. I appreciate that, which is why I always come here when I’m not too sure about a title, or when I just want to know what a book is all about. You rock! 😉

  3. Pingback: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness | Iris on Books

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