A Discovery of Witches
by Deborah Harkness
” It begins with absence and desire.
It begins with blood and fear.
It begins with a discovery of witches. “
I usually seem to have the luck to stumble upon serial books at the end, when all of the books in the set have been published and are in readily available circulation. I cannot imagine having started and fallen in love with a book only to realize that it’s part of a series that will take years and years to come into fruition (uh, hello – Game of Thrones?). I don’t like to wait. I’ve always been extremely impatient. So as a general rule, I try not to begin a series unless all of the books are out or unless there are at least 80% of the series already in publication. My memory is very poor when it comes to books and television shows and so I like to devour a story in it’s entirety before moving along to the next. This is why Netflix is probably my favorite thing ever – tons of shows with ENTIRE seasons means I don’t have to wait (and inevitably forget) week by week to see what happens to characters I am invested in.
So again, I was lucky when I came across what is commonly referred to as The All Souls Trilogy, a set of three books written by a newcomer to the mainstream literary scene – the enigmatic and old-worldly poised Deborah Harkness. After spending a year immersing myself the acclaimed Outlander series by well-educated Diana Gabaldon, I had become familiar with her intelligent style of writing and with the academically detailed way in which she writes. When a writer is educated and an intellectual, they can at times approach their writing in a way that can be cumbersome to read. Because the majority of readers do not have time to really sit with a book and also due to modern-day society’s predilection to churning things out and turning things over as quickly as possible so they can be on to the next, heavier books are not read as often as their shorter, less verbose counterparts. It’s not necessarily the story subject but more the detail and sentence structure that can make it decidedly more difficult for the average reader to get through. Gabaldon, in my opinion, writes heavier books that can take a bit of a moment to get used to, and I was thankful to have spent that year with her before transitioning into the All Souls Trilogy because Harkness writes in a very similar style.
Deborah Harkness is most definitely a scholar, her academic resume boasting honored degrees from Mount Holyoke College and Northwestern, as well as a Ph.D. from the University of California where she is a professor of history. She is highly regarded in the world of histrionic knowledge and literacy, having based her educational career on becoming a historian of both science and medicine, delving into the world of nature and magic. She is a well-versed authority in the world of alchemy, the occult, and their counterparts. Harkness spent time deep in the libraries at Oxford, researching and expanding upon her favored path, and as such, her debut fiction novel A Discovery of Witches, reads like an entertaining textbook of the science surrounding the supernatural world of witches, vampires, daemons, and magic in general.
And so the story begins.
When Diana Bishop calls up a manuscript during her research as an alchemical history professor at Oxford, she unknowingly pulls a book that holds the secrets of life – an elusive book that has been missing for centuries. In doing so, Diana evokes a song in her blood that reaches out to the otherworldly creatures around her, drawing them closer to her than she ever would have preferred. Witches aren’t supposed to mix with daemons, and certainly not with vampires – but the underground supernatural society around her won’t leave her alone until she concedes to call the book again -the mystical, and thought lost, Ashmole 782 – so that they may procure the secrets of their creation and purpose.
One of the creatures drawn to the professor is Matthew Clairmont, an ages old vampire who spends his days working as an distinguished and notable geneticist and his weekends unwinding with serious bouts of yoga and the finest wines to be found around. He is a slow-burning mystery with a serious penchant for Darwinism and is drawn to the secrets of the book from a scientific standpoint. He is as curious about Ashmole 782 as he is Diana, surprising himself as he begins to ignore the taboo that is the vampire-witch relationship. He allows her to bewitch him, her unassuming feminine wiles taking the place of the emotional barrier that he’d originally intended to have. Matthew’s arrival into the attractive historian’s world begins to complicate things to an extreme degree, not the least of which is that any relationship between them is strictly forbidden and unfortunately for them, the attraction only intensifies.
” In front of the fireplace, drinks in hand, Hamish could at last press his way into the heart of the mystery. “Tell me about this manuscript of Diana’s, Matthew. It contains what, exactly? The recipe for the philosopher’s stone that turns lead into gold?” Hamish’s voice was lightly mocking. “Instructions on how to concoct the elixir of life so you can transform mortal into immortal flesh?”
The daemon stopped his teasing the instant Matthew’s eyes rose to meet his.
“You arent’ serious,” Hamish whispered, his voice shocked. The philosopher’s stone was just a legend, like the Holy Grail or Atlantis. It couldn’t possibly be real. Belatedly, he realized that vampires, daemons, and withes weren’t supposed to be real either.
“Do I look like I’m joking?” Matthew asked.
“No.” The daemon shuddered. Matthew had always been convinced that he could use his scientific skills to figure out what made vampires resistant to death and decay. The philosopher’s stone fit neatly into those dreams.
“It’s the lost book,” Matthew said grimly. “I know it.”
Like most creatures, Hamish had heard the stories. One version suggested the witches had stolen a precious book from the vampires, a book that held the secret of immortality. Another claimed the vampires had snatched an ancient spell book from the witches and then lost it. Some whispered that it was not a spell book at all, but a primer covering the basic traits of all four humanoid species on earth. “
Diana has done her best to deny the witch inside of her, pushing her illustrious lineage to the side and putting science and the foundation of her education in its place instead. But by calling that book, she has inadvertently set herself on a path that is irrevocable. She is the progeny of a powerful witch and an even more powerful warlock, the union of which has been strongly discouraged ever since due to the combination of powers her parents had that resulted in just. . . too much magic.
When Diana finds herself unable to call the book again, she and Clairmont begin a quest for the truth about the book, its origins, and its properties. The situation proving to be more dangerous than they originally bet on as more and more supernatural beings find out that she has access to the long-lost book. Some of these beings are willing to kill for the chance to Ashmole 782’s secrets, forcing a protective Matthew to spirit Diana away into modern-day France for her safety, where she is immersed into the lives of his ancient vampire family. Much to their digress, his vampiric kin can see that Matthew is falling in love with Diana, becoming rapt by her spellbinding intelligence and the witch’s song in her blood.
” “I needed to get away from a witch.”
Hamish watched his friend for a moment, noting Matthew’s obvious agitation. Somehow Hamish was certain the witch wasn’t male.
“What makes this witch so special?” he asked quietly.
Matthew looked up from under his heavy brows. “Everything.”
“Oh. You are in trouble, aren’t you?” Hamish’s burr deepened in sympathy and amusement.
Matthew laughed unpleasantly. “You could say that, yes.”
“Does this witch have a name?”
“Diana. She’s a historian. And American.”
“The goddess of the hunt,” Hamish said slowly. “Apart from her ancient name, is she an ordinary witch?”
“No,” Matthew said abruptly. “She’s far from ordinary.”
“Ah. The complications.” Hamish studied his friend’s face for signs that he was calming down but saw that Mathew was spoiling for a fight instead.
“She’s a Bishop.” Matthew waited. He’d learned it was never a good idea to anticipate that the daemon wouldn’t grasp the significance of a reference, no matter how obscure.
Hamish sifted and sorted through his mind and found what he was seeking. “As in Salem, Massachusetts?”
Matthew nodded grimly. “She’s the last of the Bishop witches. Her father is a Proctor.”
The daemon whistled softly. “A witch twice over, with a distinguished magical lineage. You never do things by half, do you? She must be powerful.” “
When the pair returns to Diana’s childhood home and her own family, Aunt Sarah and her partner Em, she discovers more about her parents and the secrets that they fervently held under lock and key until their dying breaths. What Diana grew up believing about her parents comes into question and confusion, forcing her to answer the call to her lineage and supernatural race. When she is given an inheritance of one of her parent’s must treasured secrets, a page from Ashmole 782 itself, she must begins the quest for answers. Diana, along with a faithful Matthew by her side, make plans to strike out to search for Ashmole 782 through the ages of ancient history and culture, hoping to discover and analyze the mysterious book’s birth.
” Matthew bent and picked up the dropped sheet of stationery. ” ‘My darling Diana,” he read aloud. “Today you are seven — a magical age for a witch, when your powers should begin to stir and take shape. But your powers have been stirring since you were born. You have always been different.’ “
My knees shifted under the image’s uncanny weight.
” ‘That you are reading this means that your father and I succeeded. We were able to convince the Congregation that it was your father — and not you — whose power they sought. You mustn’t blame yourself. It was the only decision we could possibly make. We trust that you are old enough now to understand.’ “
Matthew gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze before continuing. ”
A Discovery of Witches is full of the scientific mystique of alchemy and the better known properties of magical lore and the supernatural. The pace can at times seem a little slow but in retrospect, it is simply because the author is building you up with character analysis and introducing you to the subject matters that will become important as you reach the second and third books in the trilogy. A television show based upon the books is currently in the works, with filming set to commence in the summer of 2017. Harkness is in the midst of writing a book called The Serpent’s Mirror that is centered around Matthew during the Tudor era. It’s estimated publication is in 2017. A detailed guide and companion book is also in the works for fans of the series.
Harkness is also involved in a convention called All Soul’s Con, where historians and fans can come together to explore the world of magic and science for a day of adventure and reading. This year’s convention is scheduled for Saturday, September 23 in the charismatic city and vampiric Mecca of New Orleans.
I give A Discovery of Witches 4.5 out of 5 stars and recommend it to readers who have a bit of time to sit down with a novel and the patience to allow a story to bloom slowly. the last quarter of the book moves very fast and the other two books in the trilogy also move in speedy plot changes as the duo hops from one time period to another on their magical quest. Readers who enjoy time travel, subtle romance, and strong female leads will enjoy this book.
Don’t forget to pick the other two up in this series if you enjoy the first. They read as follows: