Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

The smell of the library always lifted my spirits – that peculiar combination of old stone, dust, woodworm, and paper made properly from rags (p.31)

Okay. So. Here’s the deal. I’m sure you’ve heard me say before that I loved a book and that I think you should go buy said book and read it immediately. I’d be a pretty remiss book blogger if I hadn’t told you all that at least once before. But here’s the thing – I’m a strong enough woman to admit when I was wrong. All those other books I told you to buy? Forget them. All those other books other book bloggers, coworkers, and librarians tell you about? Back-burner them, people. This book? This book right here? This is the book you need to pick up instead. Cross my heart.

This book and I? This is love, here, people. We’re talking so much love that I used an actual BOOKMARK – not an old receipt, not a semi-clean napkin, not even a dog-eared page – to mark my place. And I didn’t write on it in pencil, accidentally spill coffee on it’s back cover, or break the spine by splaying it open. I  treated this book like the treasure it is. And now it’s your turn! Check the book jacket:

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 lineage of witches, Diana senses that the ancient book might be bound up with magic – but she herself wants nothing to do sorcery; and ater making a few notes on it’s curious images, she banishes it quickly back to the stacks. But what she doesn’t know is that the old alchemical text has been lost for centuries, and its sudden appearance 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 Clarimont, an enigmatic and eminent geneticist, practitioner of yoga, and wine connoisseur – and also a vampire with a keen interest in Ashmole 782.

But it’s just SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT!!! Seeing as how I often have a heard(er) time breaking down what it is that makes me enamored with a particular book – as opposed to those things that make me dislike a work – I’m going to do my best to try and convey what I found so fascinating with  a limited amount of ALL CAPS, !!!!, and *squee*ing.

The first thing that stands out about A Discovery of Witches is the scholarly way the book holds itself. This is most likely due to the fact that both Diana and Matthew work in academia, as professors and researchers, and the fact that Deborah Harkness herself is a professor of history with – gasp – an emphasis in the history of science and magic! Her real-life experience means that reading about the scenes in which Matthew and Diana are researching are never as boring as they might potentially be, and it also means a good deal of the book takes place within libraries and other rooms filled with books – and who doesn’t love that. I also think it’s worth mentioning that Harkness has really done her research (pun maybe a little bit intended), as many things, people, and events (including the Ashmole collection) are real things that can be found in real places. It lends a certain level of truth and reality to a story that still, at it’s heart, is about magical creatures.

And good God the creatures! Let me tell you thins – if you’re looking for a book with complex, alive characters, this is a book for you to check out. Not only does Harkness do old-school vampire in a way that’s completely refreshing (no sparkles, pouty lips, or twat acting here), although if I had one qualm with the book it’s that Matthew can be a bit of a chauvenist, and it takes Diana a little bit to learn to fight back. But, he was originally born before Christ, so Matthew has lived most of his life conforming to different honor and chivalric codes, so I’m willing to cut him a bit of slack. Plus, he’s SO DAMN SEXY. Mmmmm….Matthew Clairmont. Unless, of course, manners, education, crazy-flexible yoga-doing, being knowledgeable about wine, and refined beyond belief aren’t things that float your boat. In which case, there probably isn’t any vampire that would really appeal to your senses. I also want to apply Harkness for writing Diana as a flawed but powerful character. She spends a great deal of the book denying her witchcraft and her powerful legacy (her parents were also incredibly powerful witches, and she follows in their genetic footsteps), but she’s never really unsure of the person she is, or of what she wants. Perhaps her greatest ability is her ability to love and sacrifice for those in her life, and as Harry Potter taught us, love can be an incredibly powerful magic in it’s own right.

But it’s not just Diana and Matthew who are fascinating. Diana’s lesbian aunts Sarah and Em are the perfect balance not only for one another, but for Diana and Matthew, who are the tempest storm to Sarah and Em’s safe-harbor. We don’t really meet Diana’s family until a little more than half-way through the book, but the readers feel immediately welcomed in to their home – a house that, in quite a few moments of humor, is haunted enough to make up it’s own mind about guests. We also get to meet Matthew’s mother Ysabeau, who is everything regal and beautiful and cold that you would expect from an ancient female vampire. The way her and Diana’s relationship progresses feels very natural, and although the two are never buxom buddies, there is a certain level of affection that exists there. Add to this the presence of crazy-artistic daemons Nathaniel, Sophia, and Hamlish, as well as a vampire son or two and some crazy-evil people known as the Congregation who want nothing more than to keep Diana and Matthew apart (well, and to steal Diana’s magic in an incredibly life-ending way) and you’ve got a cast of characters with a little something for everyone.

Damn! This review is at over 1,000 words already, so I’ll try to wrap it up. I know that many other people who have read this book have been a little…disconcerted over the way that SO MANY THINGS happen all towards the end, which is clearly a case of ‘setting-up-for-book-2-in-the-series-itis’. And while usually that bothers me, I think that Harkness has done such a good job creating characters we love and places we love seeing them in (what wouldn’t I give for Matthew’s office/bedroom castle turret? Yep, you heard me right. Turret.) that it doesn’t feel as forced as moves like this usually do. Plus, I think the most important thing for me is that the book has an ending that stands on it’s own. No, not EVERY question is answered (The Lantern did that and it drove me NUTS, even though that’s not a part of a series) but the action had come to a place that, if there weren’t another book coming out, there is still closure for everyone.

This book is the most beautiful combination of history, magic, folklore, romance, and kick-ass brain power that I don’t think I could recommend it any more highly. It just became my number one read of 2011. And may be hard to beat in 2012. Please, please go read it! I need someone to talk about it with desperately, and I’d definitely want that person to be you! In other, current reading news, I’m about half way through The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and it’s also a great book in it’s own way, although I think some of my lukewarmness orginates from reading it right after I finished A Discovery of Witches. Yep. It’s one of those books – one of the ones that make the next few books you read after seem less shiny than they might otherwise. But I’m hoping to finish up The Night Circus as my last read for the R.I.P. Challenge, and what a great month of October reading it’s been. Happy reading to you, and a Happy Halloween (or Samhain, whatever your tastes may be)!


        We were in the chateau’s graceful round tower – the one that still had its smooth, conical copper roof and was set on the back of the massive main building. Tall, narrow windows punctuated the walls, their leaded panes letting in slashes of light and autumn colors from the fields and trees outside.
The room was circular, and high bookcases smoothed its graceful curves into occasional straight lines. A large fireplace was set squarely into the walls that butted up against the chateau’s central structure…There were armchairs and couches, tables and cassocks, most in shades of green, brown, and gold. (p.228)

As in most old libraries, the books were shelved by size. There were thick manuscripts in leather bindings, shelved with spines in and ornamental clasps out, the titles inked on to the fore edges of the vellum. There were tiny incunabula and pocket-sized books in neat rows on one bookcase, spanning the history of print from the 1450s to the present. A number of rare modern first editions, including a run of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and  T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, were there too. (p. 234)

“I love you, and I’m not going to stop.” Of this, too, I was certain.
“You are not in love with me.”
“I decide who I love, and how, and when. Stop telling me what to do, Matthew. My ideas about vampires may be romantic, but your attitudes toward women need a major overhaul.” (p. 284)

We turned down the rutted road leading to the Bishop house. Its late-eighteenth-century lines were boxy and generous, and it sat back from the road on a little knoll, surrounded by aged apple trees and lilac bushes. The white clapboard was in desperate need of repainting, and the old picket fence was falling down in places. Pale plumes rose in welcome from both chimneys, however, filling the air with the autumn sense of woodsmoke (p. 409)



5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Anna
    Oct 29, 2011 @ 01:34:14

    Ahh! This makes me so excited to read this. It sounds so good, that I’m thinking about returning my library copy and buying my own, just so I can have it on my shelf forever (The Night Circus, too).
    But that just seems silly.

    But I’ll probably still do it.


  2. Kailana
    Oct 29, 2011 @ 17:50:59

    I love this book! I am so glad you did, too. I look forward to book 2!


  3. Andi (Estella's Revenge)
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 18:17:14

    I’m SOLD! I’ve had a ridiculously hard time getting into a book lately, and I do believe this one is available from Overdrive for Nook from my library. I hear it a-calling!


  4. Trackback: The R.I.P. VI Challenge: A Wrap-Up « Book Maven’s Blog
  5. Trackback: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness | Iris on Books

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