Flying High: Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches

Lately, it seems, one can hardly chuck a grimoire without hitting an academic who’s taken up penning thrilling supernatural novels to supplement a professorial career. Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches is the latest offering in this pantheon of wild tales of ancient manuscripts, dark secrets, and magic.

Diana Bishop is a scholar of alchemy. She’s researching ancient texts at Oxford University’s Bodleian library when she requests a long-lost manuscript called Ashmole 782. In addition to being an academic, Diana’s also the sole descendant of a long line of witches, but she’s spent her life refusing to have anything to do with sorcery and dedicating herself to more earthly scholarship. What she doesn’t know is that Ashmole 782 has been lost for centuries (apparently other sorcerous creatures haven’t yet figured out how to use the card catalog), and a whole host of witches, vampires, and daemons have been itching to get their hands on it since its mysterious disappearance.

Diana’s unwitting discovery of the manuscript sets the entire fantastical underworld astir, and she’s soon pursued by a whole battalion of sinister persons—including uber-foxy wine connoisseur, Yogi (really), and fifteen-hundred-year-old vampire-about-town Matthew Clairmont, who’s as interested in Diana as he is in the long-lost manuscript. 

As Diana falls in love with Matthew (no spoiler there; if you can’t see that one coming, you shouldn’t be reading romance), she learns that relationships between vampires and witches aren’t just frowned on, they’re forbidden. There’s a secret organization of supernatural creatures known as the Congregation who are determined to tear her and Matthew apart—and who may be behind her parents’ murder in Africa twenty years ago. As the Congregation closes in, Matthew spirits her off to his family’s French château (custom-built in the 1600s, naturellement), and Diana is forced to come to terms with the powers she’s refused to acknowledge her entire life.

It is, in all honesty, a bit difficult to take A Discovery of Witches with a straight face; Deborah Harkness seems never to have met an adverb she didn’t like, and there’s an unintentional purpleness to her prose that can border on sheer camp. Matthew Clairmont has stolen a number of moves from the Edward Cullen playbook—he’s a Jaguar-driving, filthy rich, ludicrously good-looking gent who frolics about in sunlight with impunity, watches Diana in her sleep—creepy!—and never eats people, dining exclusively on deer, fruit, nuts, and expensive wines. (Harkness is also the author of an award-winning wine blog, and it shows.) A Discovery of Witches’ pacing is leisurely, to say the least—we don’t even find out what’s so special about Ashmole 782 for a hundred pages, and it’s another hundred or two before Diana’s enemies do much more than glower at her.

Diana is, of course, all-powerful and unaware of her own stunning beauty. (“Her eyes are extraordinary, blue and gold and green and gray” comments a besotted Matthew.) Diana and Matthew’s relationship strains the bounds of credibility. After one particularly hot makeout session, Matthew informs Diana she is now his “wife,” to which she acquiesces with nary a peep, despite spending the novel’s early chapters determinedly asserting her independence. I should ’fess up here that I’m not much of a romance reader, but I imagine many fans of the genre will have similar troubles with the Twilight-esque progression of the relationship, where Diana loses personality at an exponential rate as her love for Matthew takes hold. It’s a disappointment to see Harkness set Diana up as a feisty and strong-willed character, only to have her flailing around awaiting rescue as soon as she falls for Matthew’s charms.

But there’s plenty of fun to be had here, for all the novel’s flaws. Fans of The Historian or Katherine Howe’s more recent The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane will find lots to love in Witches’ squirreling plot twists, high-stakes romance, and lavish, vivid descriptions of European castles and ancient libraries. Harkness works in a wealth of historical details, as well as some interesting speculation on the genetic origins of the supernatural (in addition to his many charms, Matthew is also an award-winning geneticist; vampires make excellent scientists). For me, these scientific passages were the novel’s most engaging and original. There’s even a Da Vinci Code-esque subplot, for all you conspiracy-theory buffs. If you don’t mind your fantastical romance sprawling and a little silly, A Discovery of Witches is a rollicking good time. Fans of the book will be pleased to know it’s the first in a planned trilogy.


The Rejectionist is a freelance writer and aspiring vampire-about-town. She blogs at www.therejectionist.com.

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