A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES by Deborah Harkness is a daunting book to hold just based on its size and weight. When it arrived from the publisher, Viking, I thought what have I done? But I had agreed to read the book and always try to honor an agreement as best as I can. I am sure that is the attorney in me seeking to honor commitments be they written or oral.
However, I still could not make myself start the book even though I was completely intrigued by it and thought I would love its contents. Somewhere between all of the schooling, and lord knows there has been a lot, and life I have become a bit of a tortoise in the speed in which I read. But the book was calling to me no matter where I was in the house or where I put (hid) it. Maybe there really is some magic in these pages…
Just one chapter into A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES I was hooked and knew I was going to be in it till the end. About 2/3 of the way through I read an alarming tweet that clued me into the fact this was the first book of a trilogy. I am fairly certainly I cried out and remained depressed the rest of the day. “All of these pages and I am not going to get an ending? Really?”
Regardless, I knew I had to get back to it as I was already so committed to the book and its characters deserting them was not an option. My hat is off to anyone that has succinctly found a way to share this tale without giving it away for readers yet to come to its pages. And so it begins…
Diana Bishop is a visiting scholar at Oxford University. She spends a good deal of time in the Bodleian Library researching alchemy. Diana requests materials that cannot be removed from the library so she spends hours pouring over these materials. When she unlocks one of the manuscripts, Ashmole 782, there is no turning back for Diana or the reader.
This enchanted manuscript has been lost for centuries and its appearance stirs the underworld to its core. The manuscript is believed to hold secrets sought by three lines of magical creatures: witches, vampires and daemons. These characters can sense the disturbance and flock to the University. It is not only because the manuscript has resurfaced, but the fact that she was able to unlock it at all is a signficant revelation to the magical world. Diana now becomes a subject of great interest to some determined magical beings that will do whatever they need to do in order to hunt her down and to have that manuscript.
As the race to get hold of the manuscript and its secrets builds so does the intensity of the action and adventure in the book. Another Oxford scholar, Matthew Clairmont, who unnerves Diana from their first meeting adds another layer of drama to the novel. Once Matthew has taken to following and protecting Diana it prompts the other magical beings to become more agitated and more aggressive in their quest to get to Diana and Ashmole 782. Matthew is a magical being from another line then Diana and she is again at a crossroad of uncertainty. Only time and hundreds of pages will tell if he is someone Diana can trust.
Under the masterful hand of Harkness the history and secrets of Diana and Matthew and their families and extended families are beginning to be revealed. The interaction between Diana and the various magical lines escalates in intensity and while she has picked an ally there continues to a cloud of uncertainty.
Diana and her family are magical and they hold great power. From an early age Diana has purposefully turned her back on this legacy. She discovers that her deceased parents assisted in burying her heritage as well. It is time for Diana to rise up, remove the shackles and take her rightful place in order to save her own life and those around her whom she loves.
The luscious locations and rich details within contribute to the veracity and overall enjoyment for this read. Harkness has an eye for detail and laced within are historic references at every turn. From Oxford Unversity campus; to Matthew’s English estate and family castle in France; to the home of her aunt and companion in Madison located in Upstate to New York none of these locales disappoint. In fact the house in Madison, where the last 180 pages are played out, is actually a delightful surprise character with its interesting history and contents.
Once Diana and Matthew join forces, which does not come easy, and is not without consequences the story goes to yet another plan based on the brilliant writing of Harkness. She has an attention to detail, love of history and the words that she compiles creates rich worlds whether they are the past or the present. While a USC history professor by day and author and wine blogger/enthusiast by night, I am guessing in the not too distant future she will face her own crossroad about the future like Diana.
A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES is elevated from the fantasy often associated with the genre of magic and certainly in recent years with vampires to a historical fiction novel that makes you believe this could all be true. It is a novel that Harkness treats as a scholarly work and the results in my opinion are brilliant. If she could have just reduced her scholarly thoughts to one volume we would be on the same page. I don’t know how I can wait for volumes two and three in the trilogy as I miss Diana and Matthew and wonder how they are doing on their quest.
A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES is so many things but for this reader it will be on my top ten list of the year of that I am certain. And now that the world has embraced this novel it seems I am not alone in my appreciation. But even if I was alone, I would stand up on my book soapbox without hesitation and tell anyone within earshot how much I loved this book.