A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

April 15, 2011 Book Reviews 2 ★★★★★

A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah HarknessA Discovery of Witches Series: All Souls trilogy #1
on Feb. 2011
Pages: 579
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Also in this series: Shadow of Night, The Book of Life

A richly inventive novel about a centuries-old vampire, a spellbound witch, and the mysterious manuscript that draws them together.

Deep in the stacks of Oxford's Bodleian Library, young scholar Diana Bishop unwittingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript in the course of her research. Descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana wants nothing to do with sorcery; so after a furtive glance and a few notes, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery sets a fantastical underworld stirring, and a horde of daemons, witches, and vampires soon descends upon the library. Diana has stumbled upon a coveted treasure lost for centuries-and she is the only creature who can break its spell.

Debut novelist Deborah Harkness has crafted a mesmerizing and addictive read, equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense. Diana is a bold heroine who meets her equal in vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont, and gradually warms up to him as their alliance deepens into an intimacy that violates age-old taboos. This smart, sophisticated story harks back to the novels of Anne Rice, but it is as contemporary and sensual as the Twilight series-with an extra serving of historical realism.


I’m sure some reviewers will be tempted to describe A Discovery of Witches as “Twilight for adults”, but that would be a great disservice to a fascinating and challenging novel. In her first work of fiction, scholar and author Deborah E. Harkness serves up a heady brew of alchemy, academia, science, rare books, medieval chivalric orders, wine, wolf pack behavior, and above all the magical, dangerous, and seductive world of creatures: witches, vampires, and daemons, relations between whom are forbidden by covenant and policed by the sinister Congregation. Woven into the mix are underlying themes of fear and desire, individual freedom, and the relationship of predator and prey.

When Diana Bishop, a reluctant witch with a powerful talent, accidentally calls up a bespelled and long-hidden manuscript while researching in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, she attracts the interest not only of witches but of vampires and daemons—and the protection of vampire Matthew Clairmont. As Diana’s relationship with Clairmont deepens from reluctant protectee to friend to lover, the questions multiply.  Why is Diana’s power locked away? What is in the manuscript—and is it the manuscript or Diana who is the true focus of so much nonhuman interest and desire? With everyone, including Matthew, keeping (or revealing) secrets, whom can Diana trust?

Reminding me at times of Jennifer Lee Carrell’s Shakespearean puzzle-thriller Interred With Their Bones (but even better), Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches is a scholarly fantasy-lover’s delight: erudite, well-crafted, and enthralling. Be forewarned, however, that it is the first in a trilogy, and ends on something of a cliff-hanger. The sequel is not due out until sometime in 2012, and there will be a further wait for book number three, so if you’re not the patient sort, you may prefer to defer reading until all three books are out.
Update: Both the second and third books are now out. Click their titles at the top of this post to read my reviews.


About Deborah Harkness

My life has been a series of left turns that nevertheless took me in the right direction (though it didn’t always seem so at the time). I went to college to be a theater major and ended up studying the Renaissance. I went to grad school to become a college administrator and loved to teach so much I became a college professor instead. I thought I wanted to be a Tudor-Stuart historian, and found myself a historian of science. I started blogging because a friend needed help on a project in 2006 and am still blogging about wine today. I started writing a novel in the fall of 2008, and it became a New York Times Bestseller in February 2011: A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES.

2 Responses to “A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness”

  1. CarolynJean

    I’m so glad that you reviewed this book. I got it on a whim on my Kindle because of the references that the author put on the book page on Amazon.

  2. Anonymous

    I read this book twice. The first time I didn’t know it was a trilogy and was disappointed in the ending but lived it the second time. I have just opened the second book and I’m hooked. I just heard there’s a movie of The Discovery of Witches in the works. That’s exciting. I hope they follow the book and do a good job of telling the story with all of the great characters included. I vote for Sasha Roiz as Matthew and Rachelle LeFevre as Diana. Please do not have Jennifer Aniston play her. She’s better suited as one of the older witches and could never pull off the Diana character. Does anyone know when the movie will be released?