a review by Nalini Haynes
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness focuses on Diana Bishop, descendent of Bridget Bishop and Stephen Proctor of the Salem witch trials, is an academic trying very hard to live a normal life without using magic. Diana’s studies of historical alchemy, a focus on the development of science in an era of magic, lead her to request Ashmole 782 from the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The book comes to her on Modan while the witch community is celebrating. Diana recognises the magic in the book, checks it briefly from an academic perspective then returns the book to avoid the magical possibilities. Listed as missing for 150 years, other magical persons cannot access the book, and nor can Diana when she requests it a second time.
Matthew is a vampire, reinvented by Harkness but NOT sparkly. Vampire mythology in this story all has a nugget of truth that makes her reinvention plausible. Matthew overheard witches talking about Diana’s discovery of the missing book, so he begins his hunt of Diana and the book.
The Bishop family is revered within the witch community but there are complications and politics which lead to danger from those who aspire to power. Diana’s parents were brutally murdered when she was 7, the reasons for which begin to unfold. Matthew’s family is complex and extended, as one would expect from vampires who sire many children over the course of hundreds of years. Their wealth is unimaginable and their secrets even more plentiful. Tangled in the web of history, with connections to the defunct Templar sect, intrigue abounds.
Vampires and witches are not the only non-human creatures. Daemons abound as well; born to humans but in human eyes either manic, mentally ill, highly gifted or a combination of the three. Matthew and his colleagues fear all three creatures are dying out or at least diminishing. Ashmole 782 may have some answers.
Each of the characters are flawed, some fearfully so, but I found myself sympathising with and even growing to like some surprising characters. The politics are complex, developing during the course of the story like a flower unfolding before one’s eyes. Much of the book is seen through Diana’s eyes, so the reader learns the history and politics with her as she opens up to her heritage as a witch and becomes closer to the vampires.
Late in the book Harkness introduces a sentient magical house and numerous ghosts to the story. While this may be considered by some to be overdone, I found I did not object because I had been caught by the threads of the story and the characters. This added background seemed perhaps a trifle silly in that Diana supposedly grew up avoiding magic while living in this house with these ghosts, but then what we learn of Diana’s childhood could explain any discrepancies there.
I enjoyed this book as a superior paranormal romance with a significant element of political intrigue and historical influences. At 592 pages, this book is not your average paranormal romance chic lit. A word of warning – the ending, while not a cliff hanger ending, appeared to be a precursor to a second volume. Some readers may be frustrated at having to wait for the next volume.
This article was previously published in Dark Matter issue 3, April 2011, and predated on this website to reflect the original publication date.