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A Discovery of Witches – Deborah Harkness

It would seem that many of the people that have read “A Discovery of Witches” are divided between being absolutely in love with this book, or totally against it, and there are more than enough derogatory reviews on GoodReads which seem to dominate over other people’s voices – something that really irks me. I don’t mind reading a bad review, but when they are written in a derogatory manner just for the sake of it is insulting. It’s fine if you didn’t like it – just say that and move on, you know?

Anyway, onto the book – Synopsis [via Amazon]:

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

When historian Diana Bishop opens an alchemical manuscript in the Bodleian Library, it’s an unwelcome intrusion of magic into her carefully ordered life. Though Diana is a witch of impeccable lineage, the violent death of her parents while she was still a child convinced her that human fear is more potent than any witchcraft. Now Diana has unwittingly exposed herself to a world she’s kept at bay for years; one of powerful witches, creative, destructive daemons and long-lived vampires. Sensing the significance of Diana’s discovery, the creatures gather in Oxford, among them the enigmatic Matthew Clairmont, a vampire genticist. Diana is inexplicably drawn to Matthew and, in a shadowy world of half-truths and old enmities, ties herself to him without fully understanding the ancient line they are crossing. As they begin to unlock the secrets of the manuscript and their feelings for each other deepen, so the fragile balance of peace unravels…

I think in order to review this book fairly I need to divide it into three themes – the romance, the magic/supernatural and the history, and then afterwards perhaps an overall feeling of the book.

The Romance

I don’t really read romance novels – or should I say, I don’t seek out romance novels, but the romance between the main characters of Diana Bishop, last descendant of the Bishop/Proctor bloodline that can be traced back to the witches of Salem, and Matthew de Clairmont, long lived vampire of some 1500 years and counting, is present from the moment the two characters meet in the first couple of chapters.

One of the quotes from an official review of the book is this: “Intelligent and off-the-wall, it will be irresistible to Twilight fans” [Sunday Times]. I will honestly say that if I had noticed this before I may not have picked the book up in the first place – there’s that stigma that Twilight has, again that love/hate relationship that can affect the perception of other books. That being said, I enjoyed this book, and the relationship that developed between the characters.

There are times where I wonder if a main character is allowed to be as dim witted as Diana was in certain parts of the book, but I overlooked this because of the atmosphere and world that Harkness has created. The atmosphere and the characters are rich, even if Matthew’s over bearing dominance and do as I say, and don’t argue gets a bit much at times [it’s not something that I would be able to put up with in a man, that’s for sure]. The book is about Diana, with a few chapters here and there from Matthew’s perspective [switching from first person to third when this happens], but I personally think that Diana allows Matthew too much control, although it should be said that Harkness explains this away by giving vampires territorial traits, from people to land, that Diana wasn’t allow to question his authority – more so in front of other vampires as it questioned his authority. She allude to Norwegian wolf packs as examples.

The Magic/The Supernatural World:

As mentioned above the world is beautiful and rich in atmosphere and detail. From the opening pages Harkness paints a world that is steeped in history – it’s set in Oxford, UK for a start – and is written with a beautiful clarity that is just beautiful. There are times when this could be cut down a bit, but nonetheless its absorbing. This book is some 600 pages, and I read it within a week, it’s that engrossing. It would have been sooner had I not been doing things like Christmas shopping.

In this world there are four species that inhabit the world, the humans, which are conveniently and blissfully unaware of everything that goes on around them, witches, vampires and daemons. Witches, vampires and daemons don’t typically get along, because if they did there wouldn’t be much of a novel here.

Diana is studying at Oxford on fellowship from Yale, or something like that. She is researching old alchemical manuscripts that show the development into early science [I think]. She calls a manuscript from the archives that starts the whole adventure – it was enchanted by witches, and she briefly and unintentionally breaks the spell, but instead of keeping the book or looking into it further it’s sent back into the stacks. The book is wanted by all the supernatural species – there are similar origins stories for each species that they all believe hold true. The only way to find out is to read it. But it was lost a few hundred years before Diana recalled it, and then lost again afterwards.

It’s not all about an old book though.

We have Matthew, our typically wealthy vampire. He’s also a scientist looking into the origins of all species, not just vampires [who, it would seem are losing their ability to make other vampires]. He’s not only interested in the book – cue some suspicious stalking of Diana – he is also curious about Diana. Diana gives him a sample of her blood which relevant tests are run and it turns out that she has almost every known power that a witch could have – the drawback – she can’t seem to be taught how to use her magic in the conventional way.

The story as a whole is more about Diana’s magic than the book or the storyline about the creatures and who wants the book and why – and the lengths they’ll go to in order to find out what Diana’s magic is about. She’s one of the most powerful witches in generations, and as mentioned, can’t do anything. As much as I enjoyed reading about her discovering herself, her powers and abilities – this is one of the things that I had the most issue with. It read a little like a Mary Sue type character – every power ever invented, no self belief yet everyone loves her and is drawn to her [and the hot men….] There are some magic related stuff that I could mention but I don’t want to spoil the book for those of you who may happen to read it.


The History

There is a lot of history mentioned in this book – and it should be expected of course as there is a 1500 year old vampire with a lot of past misdemeanours to catch up on. From before the birth of Christianity, through the Crusades and into modern history. There’s a lot of mentions of historical figures from Newton [daemon], Washington, Jefferson, various scientists of note… all of whom Matthew happened to have some kind of connection to. A little MarySueish again, perhaps, but it works within the realms of the book.

I thought I was going to talk more about the history but I sort of hit upon it above so I won’t talk anymore about it for now.

I really enjoyed being in this world. There are comparisons to be drawn with other vampire novels, sure, but I enjoyed it, and I am looking forwards to reading the next one, especially with the way that this book ended. There are times where I felt things ought to be trimmed down a bit – such as the copious amounts of tea drinking, or wine drinking – but overall this was an engrossing book, and despite the breadth of pages, a very quick read.

Have any of you read this? What did you think?

Keep well folks,