Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (review)

Witches and vampires and daemons, oh my!

A Discovery of Witches is a wonderful book by Deborah Harkness.  It's a delightful blend of Harry Potter-esque magical realism, a nail-biting plot from Dan Brown, the lush historical details in The Historian, the science behind the movie Underworld, and (according to trusted friends) the sexiness of Twilight.  I was so in love with the story that I polished off this 575+ page novel in two sittings!

I honestly can't do the plot justice in a paragraph, so here's the inside book cover flap:  

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 sense 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 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, a practitioner of yoga, and wine connoisseur - and also a vampire with a keen interest in Ashmole 782.

What follows is a lively story that snakes it way through alchemy, genetics, witchcraft, wolf behavior, history, magic, legends come to life, ancient brotherhoods, secret texts, iconic cities, famous libraries, and castles.

If none of that interests you, this is not the book for you.

What I love about this book is how adult it is.  This is not some YA novel with simplistic writing that grown-ups are picking up.  This is a book with characters who have PhDs,  engage in discussions about academic, magical, and scientific discourse, and are open about sensuality (fair warning - this is not True Blood, nothing R- or X-rated here).

I didn't feel like I was consuming literary junk food when I read this book.  It is smartly written, doesn't back away from gritty scenes, drives the narrative with a lively tone, never dumbs down or mutes its characters, and keeps you on your toes without any cheap tricks.


Colorful, thoughtfully developed, and engaging characters abound in a plot that with a less skilled writer would have descended into a catchy airplane read but nothing more.  I, unsurprisingly, was captivated by Diana, educated and feminist but complicated.  She is quite the opposite of Meg from A Wrinkle in Time and I can't say enough about how I need strong women in my books.  

I'm very excited that this book is part of a trilogy.  The plot is expansive enough that it will need the extra breathing room to fully flesh itself out.  I might have to be one of those crazy people who pre-orders the next installment this summer!

Do you dig books with mythical creatures like vampires, werewolves, witches, and talking animals?    


  1. I'm reading this book right now and couldn't agree more!

  2. So glad you're enjoying it! I've never had so many friends reading this book all at the same time.

    My only criticism of the book is that in the middle it gets a little too mushy. There's a lot of passionate, lingering kisses that kind of stall the plot. But that's probably just a personal preference of mine :)