Historian Diana Bishop has worked diligently over the years to build up her academic reputation – and stubbornly ignore her heritage as the descendant of a long line of distinguished witches. All that changes one day when she unwittingly calls up a manuscript in Oxford’s library, a mysterious, bewitched manuscript that sets off a wild chain of events. Soon, creatures of all kinds – witches, vampires and daemons – are descending upon Oxford, all because Diana’s manuscript just may be a long-lost text that every creature wants, for very different reasons. Thrust into the middle of a situation she knows little about, Diana crosses paths with Matthew Clairmont, a centuries old vampire geneticist with his own interest in the manuscript. Though taught that witches and vampires are enemies, Matthew and Diana are, nonetheless, drawn to each other. Soon, they’re defying the rules and trying to stay one step ahead of everyone else as they try to figure out what’s so special about this manuscript – and why Diana seems to be the only person who can break its spell.
Whenever I encounter a book that might be truly excellent, the kind of book that will top my personal “best of” list with ease, I consider three things: (1) Does the book haunt me? Does it stay on my mind when I put it down? Do the characters flit in and out of my dreams as I try to figure out what might happen next? (2) Is the book impossible to put down? Does my heart race as I frantically turn the pages, so eager and desperate to continue the story? and (3) Am I left wanting more, immediately? Do I re-read the book over and over, as a way of staying in its world just a little while longer? When a book fits these three criteria, I know I’m reading something spectacular.
Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches is exactly such a book. It is utterly and completely captivating and fascinating. Harkness weaves a fantastical and paranormal premise (witches, vampires and daemons walking and living among the humans on earth) with real people, places and events. There’s history, science, myth, complex social conventions and lots of mystery; above all, A Discovery of Witches is a study of contradictions: fantastical, with strong scientific facts; solidly contemporary, with plenty of history; and undoubtedly magical, while still being completely realistic.
Before I met Matthew, there didn’t seem to be room in my life for a single, additional element – especially not something as significant as a fifteen-hundred-year-old vampire. But he’s slipped into unexplored, empty places when I wasn’t looking.
By day, Harkness is a historian herself and her strength is the level of detail and the preciseness of her historical additions. Every little thing, from Matthew’s painstakingly described library, to the scents that surround the characters, is recounted with an exactness that makes you feel as if you can see everything unfolding before your eyes, like a movie flickering in your head. Most of all, it’s well-written and thought-out. Every part of the story is there for a reason and what doesn’t make sense at first eventually comes to light.
Diana and Matthew’s relationship is complicated, to say the least, and there are definitely aspects of each that aren’t all together flattering. Matthew is overly protective and domineering, obsessive even. Diana is frustratingly naive at the beginning of the book and there were times when I was annoyed that her willful ignorance of magic forced her to be dependent on others. Still, they both learn a great deal over the course of the novel. One theme Harkness recalls throughout A Discovery of Witches is the idea of secrets and how Matthew and Diana have to learn to share their secrets in order to find the answers they’re looking for. It’s terrifying for us mere mortals to reveal our vulnerability and share a secret; imagine how Diana and especially Matthew (after centuries of keeping these secrets) feel when they unmask themselves to a (supposed) mortal enemy! Harkness does an excellent job of showing how they improve and grow and strengthen over time.
A Discovery of Witches is a bit slow to start – it doesn’t really start to pick up until about half-way through – and there’s quite a lot of history and science that can seem dense and unwieldy. However, as the first book in a trilogy, there’s a lot of world-building to do and Harkness pulls it off. Her novel truly is epic, when you consider the ramifications – past, present and future – of Diana and Matthew’s actions and decisions. Every chapter brings another revelation and, by the end of the book, I wishes I had Diana’s ability to mentally (and magically) rearrange the puzzle pieces until they fit. I strongly urge readers to stick with the book in the beginning. Your patience will be rewarded and what seemed unimportant in the first few chapters will pop up again in surprising ways.
Deborah Harkness’ book passed my three-question test and is, without a doubt, a permanent resident of my “best of” list. I give A Discovery of Witches my highest recommendation and encourage everyone to give it a try.
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