A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Discovery_of_Witches_Cover2010. Penguin. ebook. 581 pages.

In a nutshell:

Scholar Diana Bishop is a witch who largely refuses to use her powers – except for special occasions, such as when her washing machine is broken or a book is out of reach. While conducting research in Oxford’s Bodliean Library, Diana comes across a spell-bound book and has a brief magical interaction with it before returning it to the stacks. This action brings her to the attention of all the supernatural creatures in the vicinity: the other witches, daemons, and vampires. One vampire in particular, Matthew Clairmont, seeks her out and the two fall in love. This taboo relationship and Diana’s burgeoning powers throw both of them into danger, as they journey to Clairmont’s ancestral home in France and then to Diana’s home in upstate New York.


If I were to compare A Discovery of Witches to another book, it would be Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. The two books share a combination of vampires, history and travel, not to mention lengthiness. I remember loving Kostova’s novel, especially her ability to evoke the way places were in certain times. A Discovery of Witches does not have as good a sense of place, except for Harkness’ depiction of the old haunted house in upstate New York. I loved that house with all its quirks and ghosts. Harkness gave the upstate New York locale a New England feel, and I certainly warmed to that. Indeed, the last third may have been my favorite part of the book, as more and more characters show up at the house, including one of my favorite side characters, Miriam. True, the last third also could get boggy as supernatural politics and rules are stuffed in alongside eleventh-hour hurried explanations – [**Spoiler**] oh Diana you have all the powers because you absorbed your twin in utero! okay go time travel now! [**/end spoiler**].

Why am I starting this review by describing the last third? Well, I wanted to start with the positive, I guess. I debated giving up on this book while in the first two-thirds because I hated the Matthew / Diana dynamic so much. Young “special” woman courted by very old vampire? Oh, and he’s stalkerish (“over-protective”), handsome and rich too? Yippee. The first part – in Oxford – was almost insufferable, as Matthew shows off his antiques and fine wines to Diana, whisking her around in his high-end car and to his high-end estate. And he’s also – wait for it – dangerous, so there’s that tired rigmarole as well.

The section in France is a little improved, as we are introduced to Matthew’s mom, Ysabeau, also a cool side character. But it’s also: more antiques! More displays of Matthew’s fine tastes! And it was in this section that I realized that the book features lots of scenes of Diana being told to rest. Usually this is for a good reason, as she experiences a lot of emotional and physical trauma during the book. But she is constantly submitting to the caretaking and ministrations of others, and this gets repetitive. As lengthy as this book is, as a reader, you start to eye those repetitive aspects and ask if all that was really necessary.

I’m semi-curious about the rest of the trilogy, as I did like aspects of the book. Despite the clumsy way it was sometimes handled or written, the supernatural politics and world-building had some intrigue. And the side characters had promise – more airtime for them could possibly benefit the story as a whole, I think. Has anyone read the whole trilogy? Does it get better?

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Iris on Books – “Throughout the first half, reading A Discovery of Witches felt like an addictive rush, I kept on wanting to read more, and I could not wait to recommend it to the people I know who enjoy paranormal fiction. However, towards the end of the book, that rush turned into a mixture of the will to keep reading and dread combined with, at times, annoyance.”

The Literary Omnivore – “The plot structure is crippled by the lack of any resolution in this installment of the trilogy, the overbearing romance is so syrupy you’ll want to wash your hands, and the worldbuilding’s motto appears to be “Why show when you can tell”? Definitely a miss.”

Tif Talks Books – “I loved the complexities added in, including alchemic history, suspenseful mysteries, intricate connections, scientific relations to the paranormal, and more than a little romance.”


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4 responses to “A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

  1. The Historian is a good comparison. Both are books I found entertaining but soured on a bit after finishing them. I thought this was fun in a goofy way, and I liked the world building. I read it when it first came out, and when I finished, I thought I’d read the next one, but by the time it came out, I found I didn’t care about the world or its characters anymore.

    • Yeah, the ending of the Historian was kind of disappointing, as I recall. I have a feeling I won’t read the rest of Harkness’ trilogy. It reminds me of when I finished Justin Cronin’s The Passage, which I struggled mightily to get through. There was part of me that was still curious enough to continue on, but when the sequel came out, I didn’t make any moves toward reading it.

  2. Haven’t read the whole trilogy, but I read Discovery of Witches last week and finished part three, Book of Life, today. (Not intentional – my library had 1 and 3, but not 2.) I’m not sure what went on in part 2 besides character building and a bit more history of The Book of Life, because going from the first to the third book was pretty seamless.

    I’d agree with *all* you’ve said here.

    There were some payoffs in the third book – complications that…sort of…explain why Matthew is so annoyingly overbearing. “Rest, Diana, rest” – yeah. No. She doesn’t need to rest, she needs to step up, and she does…eventually. And then, in a big way. For me the third book really benefited by having lots of enforced separation between Matthew and Diana. It also allows for a lot more time with the interesting secondary characters – Miriam, her ‘aunt’ Sarah, Fernando, a character named Gallowglass. Less of a fawning kind of focus on the de Cleremont’s riches, more of a casual take – “Oh, right, this Elizabethan chair has been sitting around here forever, get over it.” So, less annoying. I still found the Matthew/Diana scenes to be my *least* favorite of any goings-on in the book.

    I wouldn’t enthusiastically recommend these, but…okay, I’ll go ahead and damn with faint praise. They were less bad/more interesting than most paranormal romance-y books. And I still love the Bishop house, wish everything in the series had been as much fun as that was.

    • Thanks so much for weighing in with your experience with the trilogy! That is fascinating that you were able to go from the first to the third book without it seeming disjointed. Glad to hear from another reader who is also a fan of the Bishop house scenes! I’m thinking I probably won’t go for the rest of the trilogy. I think I would need someone’s enthusiasm to push me toward it.

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