Deep in the stacks of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, young scholar Diana Bishop unwittingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript in the course of her research. Descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana wants nothing to do with sorcery; so after a furtive glance and a few notes, she banishes the book to the stacks.
But her discovery sets a fantastical underworld stirring, and a horde of daemons, witches, and vampires soon descends upon the library. Diana has stumbled upon a coveted treasure lost for centuries-and she is the only creature who can break its spell.
A Discovery of Witches is Deborah Harkness’s debut novel and is the first part of the All Souls Trilogy. As you would expect from a trilogy, this first novel lays a lot of the groundwork for the coming sequels and much of the world building takes place in the beginning few chapters which slows the pace down somewhat.
There is a lot of information in this book but the author really doesn’t help matters by being so repetitive as the Oxford chapters are full of endless descriptions of Diana’s research, her love for rowing and yoga, and her preoccupation with a vampire’s diet. There was a lot of information that just seemed extraneous to the plot and could have been easily cut to help the narrative along.
The world Diana lives in is populated by four species: witches, vampires, daemons and humans, none of whom co-exist peacefully, and with humans being unaware of the existence of the others. Diana is descended from a long line of witches on her maternal side but has turned her back on magic since she believes it is responsible for the deaths of her parents. Diana has no idea how she calls forth the fabled Ashmole 782 book and as soon as she realises she may be out of her depth, she sends it back to the stacks. However, the damage is already done as the book’s power has already been felt by witches, daemons and vampires who all want the secrets of the book for themselves.
Diana also catches the attention of Matthew Clairmont, a powerful vampire who seems more enchanted with Diana herself than the manuscript. As Diana and Matthew spend more time together, the danger escalates because it is forbidden for a witch and a vampire to be friends, let alone lovers. When Matthew realises Diana is being threatened, he spirits her away to his family castle in France to keep her safe. However, Matthew’s vampire mother, Ysabeau, blames witches for the death of her husband and Diana seems to be swapping one dangerous situation for another, but Ysabeau loves her son and will do anything to keep him happy.
The situation becomes more complicated when Diana’s powers begin to awaken and Matthew discovers from her DNA that she may be the most powerful witch ever born as she has markers for every known power. As their enemies move closer, Matthew is powerless to deny his feelings for Diana any longer as he knows in his heart that she is his one true mate. After another attempt on Diana’s life, Matthew takes her to the States to be with her Aunt Sarah and her partner, Emily, as they contemplate their future.
The story I’ve outlined above is only a brief synopsis of what takes place in the book as there is a lot of stuff going on between the covers. Matthew and Diana are both accomplished scientists in their respective fields so the chapters are overflowing with scientific details that you will either love or hate. Personally, I found the alchemy stuff boring as hell and I still have no clue what the philosopher’s stone is all about, however Matthew’s field of research into DNA was much more interesting. There is a lot of attention given to mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down the maternal line, and it fits perfectly into the mythology of the book, especially in relation to Diana’s witch heritage. I have read Bryan Sykes’s The Seven Daughters of Eve so the mtDNA wasn’t a problem for me, even though I will admit a lot of it still goes over my head. If you are at all interested in exploring more about mtDNA, then Sykes’s book presents it in an easily understandable way.
As far as I’m concerned, Harkness also owes a huge debt to Anne Rice as much of the mythology is heavily influenced by Rice’s own vampire and witch novels. Harkness even gives a nod to Rice’s famous blonde vampire which you will easily spot if you are Rice fan. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this but it also means Harkness brings nothing new to the table, as I’m sure Potter and Charmed fans will also find many beloved similarities throughout.
Despite this, I did find myself drawn to the tale and some of the characters are delightful. Diana and Matthew are passable as the main characters but they are nothing startling, however they are surrounded by so many wonderful supporting characters, like Ysabeau and Marthe, and Sarah and Emily, all of whom have stories left untold. The idea of Sarah and Em living with Ysabeau and Marthe in France is almost too mouthwatering to contemplate and I really hope we don’t get cheated out of that tale.
I’m curious enough to see how this story unfolds, however I’m not thrilled with the idea of Matthew and Diana time walking into Elizabethan England so I’m already wary of reading the second book which is also going to be full of celebrated writers and scientists from that era. Hopefully, my doubts will be unfounded.