Leah’s Review of “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness

By: Leah

Originally posted on Leah’s Books.

A Discovery of Witches

  • Author: Deborah Harkness
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Publication Date: February 8, 2011
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Series: All Souls Trilogy #1

CONTENT WARNING: mention of death of a parent, stalking, murder, suicide, gore, panic attack, blood, mention of miscarriage, mention of death of a child, torture, violence

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Plot summary

Deep in the heart of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, scholar Diana Bishop requests a manuscript called Ashmole 782 in the course of her research. Coming from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana senses that the ancient book might be bound up with magic—but she herself wants nothing to do with sorcery; and after making a few notes on its curious images, she banishes it quickly back to the stacks. But what she doesn’t know is that the old alchemical text has been lost for centuries, and its sudden appearance has set a fantastical underworld stirring. Soon, a distracting horde of daemons, witches, and vampires descends upon the Bodleian’s reading rooms. One of these creatures is Matthew Clairmont, an enigmatic and eminent geneticist, practitioner of yoga, and wine connoisseur—and also a vampire with a keen interest in Ashmole 782.

Equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense, A Discovery of Witches is a novel of epic scope, traveling from the cobbled streets of Oxford to the château and mountains of the Auvergne to a small town in upstate New York. It also takes us into a rich fifteen-hundred year history that spans Clovis and the Crusades, the Knights Templar, and the American Revolution. As Matthew and Diana’s alliance deepens into intimacy, Diana must come to terms with age-old taboos and her own family’s conflicted history—and she must learn where the modern woman she is meets the source of an ancient power that is her legacy. With a scholar’s depth and the touch of a great storyteller, Deborah Harkness has woven a tale of passion and obsession; the collision of magic, alchemy, and science; and the closely guarded secrets of an enchanted world.

Overall impression

This book is an absolute brick, but I’ve never been scared away by a big book. In fact, it’s all part of the charm to me. And while I definitely read this at a slower pace than I usually tend to read, it’s mainly because I was so in love with the detailed and evocative writing style that I wanted to savor every single word, rather than rush through to the end. This book is literally the anti-Twilight. 

I’m always a sucker for a book about a book. Isn’t that the true mark of a book lover? And the main characters, Diana and Matthew, are true book lovers. I couldn’t resist this story, even if I tried. It’s more than just a book about a book, it’s also about history, science, witches, vampires, daemons, magic, power, greed, and romance. So basically it has literally everything.

Diana is the last in a line of powerful witches, yet she’s incredibly resistant to using her magic. Instead, she has thrown herself into academia and the study of history. I can understand her desire to make her way in a world strictly on her own merits, rather than using magic to get things the easy way. But, when she accidentally calls up a manuscript that turns out to be one that has been missing for well over a century, leading to absolute chaos, her worlds cross:

“Even at a safe distance, this manuscript was challenging me—threatening the walls I’d erected to separate my career as a scholar from my birthright as the last of the Bishop witches. Here, with my hard-earned doctorate, tenure, and promotions in hand and my career beginning to blossom, I’d renounced my family’s heritage and created a life that depended on reason and scholarly abilities, not inexplicable hunches and spells.”

Calling up Ashmole 782 leads to witches, vampires, and daemons coming out of the woodwork, all trying to get their hands on this mysterious manuscript. And when they can’t, they want the next best thing … Diana. But she’s busy focusing on her career and the mysterious vampire who has caught her attention. Rather than becoming threatening, he seems to be protective of her. We get to know him as well, and he’s just as, if not more, fascinating than Diana. I loved that we got chapters seeing into both his and her POV, allowing us a greater perspective on this sprawling story. 

As Diana is forced to confront her own feelings about magic, she’s also forced to face all of these dangers that are thrown at her from all directions, except, seemingly, from Matthew. Watching the relationship develop between then was amazing, especially as they try to figure out all the mysteries surrounding them and this book. Because the mystery of Ashmole 782 isn’t the only one they’re dealing with — they also have to figure out why people are dying in apparent vampire attacks, why creatures are weaker and dying out in greater numbers than in the past, and why witches and vampires want Diana so badly. 

There’s so much action throughout the story, that it honestly didn’t feel as long as it was. The pace was consistently fast, which is a difficult feat for a book of this length. It’s clear that the author did a ridiculous amount of historical research, but it never felt boring or dry. The story takes us back and forth in time from the Crusades to present day, and while it ended on a cliffhanger, it never left me feeling unfulfilled or cheated out of an ending. I’m dying to pick up the next book, and I can already see a visit to the library in the near future. In the meantime, I’m going to have to settle for watching the first season of the show until I can make the trip.

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