Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

24 Feb

A Discovery of WitchesMy rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

What I like best about A Discovery of Witches is that it is an intelligent book. The characters are smart, and think about their challenges. The author obviously put a lot of thought into her world, and how it fits with the history of our own. Most of all, it kept me thinking as I read it.

From the publisher:

A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES begins on a late September afternoon when Diana Bishop, a bright, young historian studying amidst the ancient stacks of Oxford’s Bodleian library, calls up a medieval manuscript of alchemical illustrations. As soon as she picks it up Diana realizes that the book—Ashmole 782—is an enchanted object of untold power. As it turns out, Diana is not only a first-rate scholar of seventeenth- century chemistry but also a descendant of a long and distinguished line…of witches. She’s spent her adult life distancing herself from her supernatural destiny, and after a quick look at Ashmole 782 she sends the book back to the stacks and her magical history with it.

However, Diana isn’t the only one who has noticed that the manuscript has resurfaced, and her discovery immediately sets the fantastical underworld stirring. It soon becomes apparent that Ashmole 782 is a coveted treasure that’s been lost for centuries and Diana is the first and only being that has met the terms of its spell. Soon she finds herself beset by members of all three magical species—daemons, witches, and vampires—who swarm upon Oxford, seeking the text. She finds a crucial ally in Matthew Clairmont, a dashing geneticist and a vampire, whose preeminence in his field has been achieved after years upon years upon years of study. The two team up despite an age-old enmity between their species, becoming closer over candlelit dinners, supernatural yoga classes, and a trip to Matthew’s ancestral home (well, castle) in southern France.

As their challenges grow, so do Diana’s powers, and together she and Matthew must battle the forces rallying against them to unlock the secrets of a manuscript whose pages promise clues to a mysterious past and uncertain future.

I really loved the tie between science and magic in this world, that Diana (as a historian) is studying the world of science to try and understand more about the world of magic. In this world, vampires are often involved with science (as practitioners) for the same reason:

These days vampires gravitated toward particle accelerators, projects to decode the genome, and molecular biology. Once they had flocked to alchemy, anatomy, and electricity. If it went bang, involved blood, or promised to unlock the secrets of the universe, there was sure to be a vampire around.

I felt like the first third of A Discovery of Witches (about 200 pages) was all setup– of the world, of the characters, of the first hints of the plot. This was my favorite section of the book.

The plot itself was interesting and overall well executed– epic adventure, true love, etc.

To have these things, you must have characters, and characters abound. Diana is on a journey of self discovery. She’s smart, and powerful, and completely unwilling to use her magic. She’s realizing there is more to her personal history than she’s been told.

The female characters were wonderful– Ysabeau is a vampire who despises witches, but must come to peace with Diana or risk losing her son. Sarah and Em are the witches that raised Diana in a house with a personality, in the company of generations of ghosts.

I struggled more with Matthew, a very manly vampire that takes his family responsibilities strongly.

One of the things this book kept me thinking about was gender roles in its society. Certainly, the vampires have a very male dominated culture. The witches favor the female influence, at least as far as I saw. Diana and Matthew fight this dynamic in their relationship, and I wasn’t always happy with what I saw. I do think that I may be more pleased with future books, as there will (literally) be a shift of power.

I also kept wondering about the power balance between the creatures (Daemons, Vampires and Witches) and the humans. These vampires are the mostly indestructible type, with all the typical strengths, but none of the traditional weaknesses, yet they still (individually and as a group) find it important not to draw the attention of humans. This is true of all the creatures. I think this was indirectly addressed in this book, and may be more clearly explained in future volumes.

So, all in all, I liked the characters, plot and world. I appreciated the questions it brought up. The only real problem I had was a minor one. The book felt a little unbalanced to me, that it didn’t intermix the character information, the world building and the plot as smoothly as I’d have liked. But that’s a small criticism. Overall, it’s a great read.

I received A Discovery of Witches from the publisher for review. I’d like to thank Penguin for this opportunity.


Posted by on February 24, 2011 in books, reviews


Tags: , , ,

8 responses to “Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

  1. Chrisbookarama

    February 24, 2011 at 8:43 am

    Sounds like a very entertaining read. I’m going to put it on my list.

  2. Debbie's World of Books

    February 27, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    Glad you rated this one so highly. I can’t wait to start it!


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