Book Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

It’s rare to find a book that you think about even when you’re not reading it and whose world you’re more involved in than your own. But that’s how it was for me with Deborah Harkness‘ A Discovery of Witches – a book that’s pure magic to me (no pun intended). It’s now in a three-way tie for my all time favorite book (with Jennifer Lee Carrell’s Interred with Their Bones and Anne Fortier’s Juliet, in case you were wondering). The very fact that I wanted to read it again right away and was actually sad to have to return it to the library says a lot.

The story centers on Diana Bishop, a 30-something historian who specializes in  Medieval alchemy. When researching at Oxford, she accidentally calls up a long-lost, spellbound manuscript, Ashmole 782. She senses something strange about it and opens it, but doesn’t read it. Although she’s descendant from a long line of witches, she wasn’t trained to use magic and so doesn’t realize the impact of her ability to break the spell. She returns the manuscript just like any other book. That’s when a host of vampires, demons and other witches start following her every move, all desperate to unlock the mystery of Ashmole 782, even if it costs Diana her life. Along the way she discovers she does indeed have magical powers (something else those otherworldly creatures are interested in) and forges an unlikely bond with vampire Matthew Claremont, an alliance that will both threaten and change her life in ways she could never imagine.

I’ve seen this book described as “Twilight for the academic set.” That’s like comparing foie gras with a hot dog. Yes, they both have controlling vampires. That’s where the similarities begin and end, in my opinion. Twilight was a teenage love story with nothing more at stake (seriously, no pun intended) than Bella’s life and heartbreak. This book is about the interaction of witches, humans, vampires and demons (which could be seen as an analogy for racial tolerance), evolution and the future of all of their kinds. It’s about magic and mystery and their place in a scientifically dominated world. I’d say the stakes are a little higher here.

I had no idea there were vampires in this book when I picked it up.  It contains three of my very favorite things: ornate libraries, an old, mysterious book, and magic (the Wiccan kind, not the Harry Potter kind), so I was hooked immediately. Even if that doesn’t do it for you, the mystery surrounding the manuscript of Ashmole 782 will.

I’m a huge fan of character-driven fiction and a Discovery of Witches excels in character development. You learn so much about them from their day-to-day lives and interactions with each other. Some are likeable, others are not, and there are a few you don’t know if you can trust. Diana is by far my favorite, but then again, I relate to her on a number of levels, including her love of history, old books and unfortunate propensity toward panic attacks. For some odd reason, I was captivated by Diana’s hobby of rowing (sculling to be precise) and plan to take that up myself as a result of having read this book. Matthew, despite being the main love interest, doesn’t make me fall in love with him. I like him as a character, but I think it’s my inability to trust him that keeps me at a distance. My favorite character is Marthe. Somehow, her mix of humor and down-to-earth wisdom is the perfect foil to Diana, Matthew and Ysabeau, all of whom can be too serious.

The world, writing and plot of this book are also handled with expertise. I’ve never been to any of the locations, nor had I ever seen sculling before, but thanks to Harkness’ evocative descriptions, I could see and hear it all. And all of the meals and wine that were described kept me hungry and in need of a drink (in a good way)! I especially love the Bishop House, which really is a character unto itself. It gave the book some much-needed levity.

A Discovery of Witches seems to be a love it or hate it book, judging from the number of one- and five-star reviews on Goodreads. It’s a very layered story, and if you only take the time to focus on one point, you’re going to miss a lot. This is a book that should be savored. But that doesn’t mean it’s not without its flaws. There were some plot points I didn’t believe and others that I felt deserved more explanation, but I’m trusting Harkness has her reasons for handling things the way she did. That’s one of the problems with not being able to read a series all the way through. A lot of times the author does things a certain way that will make perfect sense once you can see the story as a whole as she does. But as readers, we don’t have that option along the way (at least not until all the books come out).

(This is the short version of my review. If you want to read my long, spoilery, very passionate review, you can find it here on Goodreads – but I would suggest reading the book first because I touch on almost all the major plot points.)

At the time of this writing, I’m about half way into second book and enjoying it immensely as well. Stay tuned for a possible review of that book in the future.

PS – If you get the chance to listen to the audio book, Jennifer Ikeda does an incredible job as the narrator.

Have you read A Discovery of Witches? Did you like it? Why or why not? What kinds of books interest you?

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

  1. Vampires, known for their jaw-dropping good looks and seductive charm, aren’t supposed to associate with witches, but Diana’s discovery has caught Matthew’s attention. Contrary to everything she has been taught and despite her initial reluctance and suspicion, Diana joins forces with Matthew to battle the dark spirits that are gathering around them. But cooperation quickly leads to attraction as Diana and Matthew begin to fall in love—an act forbidden by the Congregation, the covenant of witches, daemons, and vampires who dictate the rules of behavior for all underworld species and have the power to cruelly punish those who break them.

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  3. Are you a Potter fan, Nicole? Just curious… That’s one world that I felt like an inhabitant of after reading through the series late (and in less than a week.) I was painful to cope with the recent, so-called “end”!

    • Hi Amy,

      Oh yeah, I’m a Harry Potter fan! I WISH I could live in that world. Hermionie and I would either be best friends or hate each other because we're so much alike. No, I haven't spent time thinking about that, not at all... :)

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