Book Review: A Discovery Of Witches

A Discovery Of Witches - Deborah Harkness

Humanity shares the world with three other near-human races – daemons, vampires and witches. These non-human “creatures”, as they refer to themselves, keep their existence a carefully-preserved secret in the modern world while occupying themselves spinning webs of political intrigue.

Diana Bishop hails from a respected, important family of witches but rejects her heritage, preferring instead to build her academic career as an historian of science. Conducting research in Oxford’s Bodelian Library, Diana stumbles across a bewitched alchemical manuscript, long believed lost, and soon becomes the focus of unwanted attention from the creature community. All three branches of non-humanity have long sought the manuscript, but only Diana has the power to unlock the spell which conceals its secrets. She would happily forget all about it, but her fellow creatures won’t let her off so easily – among them the captivating academic and vampire Matthew Clairmont, whose interest in Diana isn’t limited to just the mysterious manuscript.
This first novel from Deborah Harkness, herself a successful historian of science and a professor of history at the University of Southern California, is built on many of the elements familiar to readers of urban fantasy and paranormal romance – hidden semi-human species, the concealed reality of magic, internecine conflict, supernaturally-intense romantic engagements – but adds a few new ingredients which have certainly helped to propel it to the top of the mainstream bestseller lists.
Firstly, Professor Harkness writes well, and is particularly adept at conjuring the sensory impressions which are so pivotal to the characters’ lives. “Write what you know”, they say, and as an historian she puts her expertise to great use, evoking with considerable richness and depth the environments of Oxford and of other historical settings drawn from her characters’ memories (she is seriously into wine as well and has an award-winning wine blog!). She weaves detail of her and her protagonist’s specific expertise into the telling incredibly well, an element I enjoyed immensely (as it happens my own post-graduate studies were in the history and philosophy of science and medicine, so all this gave me a bit of a buzz). A very nice dimension was the convincing exploration of the genetic foundation for the creatures’ existence, discussion of which weaves in some very realistic elements of cutting-edge research into the genetic “history” of human migrations.
The abilities of vampires and daemons are described as “preternatural” rather than supernatural, that is, human capabilities magnified to superhuman levels. Witches of course are the exception, the abilities somehow granted by their creature genetics being obviously and ostentatiously “magical”. A weakness of this novel as a work of supernatural fiction is that, having evoked character and setting so effectively, Harkness fails to render the witches’ magic in a way that is sufficiently distinctive or believable. She seems much more comfortable with aspects of her story that are rooted firmly in reality, even if that reality is a bit extended, than when she steps off the precipice into the purely magical. However to be fair, this aspect of the setting improved as Diana, who has been denying her magical powers, begins to confront them. Also, A Discovery Of Witches is the first volume of a trilogy, and it is strongly hinted that the next book will explore the magic of the witches in more depth. So I must reserve judgement.
A minor point – I was quite surprised that her characters claim creatures to represent about 10% of the global population. Ten percent? Really? There are seven hundred million of them??? Even allowing for the relatively mundane gifts of the daemonic type (preternatural creative genius, it seems, though their gifts are also fairly ill-defined), that seems like quite a lot of creatures wandering about, especially when a lot of them are blood-drinking immortals. Remember, this is not a novel in the alternative history vein, these beasties are all meant to be keeping themselves secret from the Muggles (ahem).
This is also one of those novels in which not a lot actually happens considering its bulk. The developing relationship between the protagonist and her admirer forms the spine of the storytelling, and if it weren’t for the evocative detail in Harkness’ writing, and the steady flow of revelations concerning the creatures and their nature, it would have been easy to lose interest. It is a pretty chunky read to be a slow-burner in this genre (nearly 600 pages). When I bought this book I don’t recall it being marketed as a “paranormal romance” – if it had, it probably wouldn’t have interested me. But it is aimed at a more mature audience than Twilight and the like, and the richness of the historical detail and the insights into the protagonists’ (and the author’s) academic specialisms are engrossing.
Still, it is an enjoyable romp with many admirable features, and as a bloke, I didn’t find the kissy-wissy bits too much to bear. Having just discovered that it is the first of the All Souls trilogy (not something that was apparent when the first one hit the shelves), who knows how much Harkness will add to the world she has created?

About Mark Winter

Dark Fantasy novelist (INFERNAL PREY). Blogging on politics and current affairs (GibberLog), science and history (BlatherLog), sci-fi, fantasy & horror (WittlerLog), business, product development & start-ups (MutterLog). View all posts by Mark Winter

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