“It begins with absence and desire. It begins with blood and fear. It begins with a discovery of witches.”
A Discovery of Witches is the first in Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy. I’ve come to this book years after everybody else, as usual, but it seems I’ve picked a good time to read it as the third book is due out this summer. I did actually receive a review copy of the second one, Shadow of Night, a while ago but as I prefer to start at the beginning of a series I couldn’t read it until I got round to reading this one first. I haven’t been actively looking for a copy of A Discovery of Witches as I really wasn’t sure it was something I would like, but when I noticed it was available through NetGalley I decided it was time to give it a try.
Our narrator, Diana Bishop, is an American academic who has come to England to research the history of alchemy in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. She is also a witch. Not the kind who wears a black hat and flies on a broomstick, but a young woman who is able to live and work alongside humans while possessing magical powers which even she doesn’t fully understand. When Diana discovers an old alchemical manuscript known as Ashmole 782 in the library, it draws the unwelcome attention of several other beings – not just witches, but also vampires and daemons. It seems that the manuscript is bewitched and contains hidden information these other creatures desperately want.
Among the crowds of otherworldly creatures descending on Oxford in search of the manuscript is scientist Matthew Clairmont, who happens to be a vampire. Together, Matthew and Diana attempt to unravel the secrets of Ashmole 782 and in the process they begin to fall in love. But relationships between witches and vampires are strictly forbidden and the Congregation – a council made up of three representatives from each group of creatures – will do anything to put an end to their romance.
This book was a nice surprise, because I enjoyed it much more than I’d expected to! If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you will know that I don’t normally read books about vampires and witches, but I think it was precisely the fact that I don’t normally read books about vampires and witches that explains why I found this one so much fun to read. It was something different for me and the complaint some readers have, that it’s too much like Twilight for adults, meant nothing to me as I haven’t actually read Twilight (am I the only person who hasn’t?) so I’m not really familiar with what might be seen as vampire romance cliches. There were echoes of lots of other books, though. The way the story began with the discovery of a manuscript in the library was reminiscent of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (one of the few vampire books I have read) and the backstory involving Diana’s parents reminded me of the Harry Potter books.
There were lots of things to enjoy about A Discovery of Witches. I loved the combination of romance, history, adventure and fantasy. I liked the idea of creatures (the collective term for witches, vampires and daemons) co-existing with humans and doing the normal, everyday things that humans do – studying in libraries, drinking tea, checking their emails, even going to yoga classes. I loved the descriptions of the various locations Diana and Matthew visit, beginning in Oxford before moving on to a remote castle in the French countryside and then finally a haunted house with a mind of its own and several resident ghosts. And I enjoyed all the little scientific and historical details that are dropped into the story – information on evolution, genetics and the history of alchemy.
The book was not without a few flaws, though. I thought the pace was uneven – after a great start there was a long period where not much happened and while I wasn’t exactly bored, I did wonder when the plot was going to move forward again. Somewhere in the middle of the novel I started to feel impatient with Diana as she seemed so content to have Matthew protect her and make all the decisions in their relationship, which was disappointing after she’d appeared to be such a strong character at the beginning. I found it frustrating that she was so reluctant to use her magic, although I did eventually understand the reasons why she couldn’t or wouldn’t.
It also seemed that the sole purpose of the final few chapters of the book was to set things up for the sequel. This was not a big problem for me, as I already have a copy of the second book and could have started it immediately if I’d wanted to, but I’m sure it must have been annoying for people who read the book when it was first published and wanted to know how the story would be resolved!
I don’t think I’ll be rushing to fill my shelves with vampire books now, but I did enjoy this one and will certainly be continuing with Shadow of Night soon.
Thanks to Headline for providing a review copy via NetGalley