Book Review – A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

discovery of witches - book coverI don’t recall where it was I first saw this book recommended but reading the summary caught my attention enough to stick it on one of my To Read lists. As part of the Harry Potter generation, I will forever have a fondness for fantasy novels dealing with witches and wizards, especially when they’re well plotted and the world building is thorough—both of which perfectly describe Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, the first in her All Souls Trilogy. I know I won’t be able to wait too long to read and review the next book in the trio—I need to know what happens next.

Diana Bishop is the last in a long and famous line of witches but she prefers her life as a historian and, as a rule, avoids using her magic except when it’s absolutely necessary. Her research into early alchemical texts doesn’t count. But one day while researching at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, she discovers that one of the manuscripts she requested has magic shielding parts of it. Wary of what she might have stumbled onto, Diana sends it back and moves on but in the following days the library begins to fill with other creatures—witches, daemons, and vampires. Among those watching her is Professor Matthew Clairmont, a physician, research biologist, and vampire. Though she is cautious about him at first, she can’t deny the way she’s drawn to him, learning that he and everyone else are interested in the manuscript she was able to summon where so many had failed—a fact that, along with her blossoming relationship with Clairmont, put Diana in danger.

It took me a few chapters to settle into A Discovery of Witches. While I will always have a soft spot for fantasy novels along these lines, I feel that many of them try to tackle too much, too fast; they bring in too many of the magical and mythical creatures and the story loses focus. When the vampires and daemons first made their appearances in the book, it put me on edge until the deep world building and carefully constructed plot drew me back in with a vengeance. The other creatures aren’t part of the story for shock value or to check things off on a list; I don’t think that werewolves or fairies will show up suddenly in book two when there’s been no mention of them or allusion to them in book one. The plot of the trilogy has these three specific species of creatures at the heart of it and they’re grounded in history and mythology as well as through a scientific component that helps support the organizational structures of the world Harkness has created.

Something I’ve come to appreciate more as an adult are series that have a clear endgame in mind when they start as opposed to the first book or two being a hit and so the author simply adds more and more just to keep things going, expanding as and where necessary and retconning along the way. Because Harkness’ trilogy has a definite plot for the series going in, it is able to take its time in developing the central characters, presenting their histories—a lengthy process where 1500-year-old vampires are involved—and giving their relationships time to blossom and evolve.

Though most of the novel is in Diana’s first person perspective, there are several times where that is broken and other characters’ points of view are given in third person—a wise choice given the direction book two appears headed. While first person frequently bothers me in teen fiction, here it works very well—of course, this trilogy isn’t aimed at teens. There are some parts where one would expect a break from Diana to follow other characters and what they’re up to while away from her—Matthew Clairmont in one instance I can think of and Diana’s aunts who don’t appear in person until the last third of the book but who promise to play a significant role in the rest of the trilogy.

I’m left with quite a few questions as I add the next book to my library request list, but also confidence that I will be given satisfactory answers as I journey through the series.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review – A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

  1. Great review! I wound up not finishing this which doesn’t happen often. I made it to the halfway point, but I got bogged down with all the detail the author put in like Diana’s tea drinking rituals and her long walks. For me it was like being trapped in quicksand.😕 I don’t know if I was just in a cranky mood. Someday I’ll probably try it again.

    • Lauryn E. Nosek says:

      I found it slow for the first seven chapters and took a break before going back – it was a forced break because I borrowed it from the digital library and it was someone else’s turn for a while – but when I got it back and was able to refocus on it, I got really into it. Definitely not an easy read – there’s a lot of detail and slow development – but I’d say the last third of the book really picks up and things start clicking into place beautifully. I find it remarkable how much mindset and little things can really make books either pop or fall flat, especially when it comes to rereading things I had difficulties getting through the first time through (if I have the determination to go back a second time, that is).

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