Books · reviews

It starts with a review of “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches

by Deborah Harkness
Penguin, 2011

The best way to enjoy A Discovery of Witches? With a strawberry margarita on hand.
The best way to enjoy A Discovery of Witches? With a strawberry margarita on hand.


“When historian Diana Bishop opens a bewitched alchemical manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library it represents an unwelcome intrusion of magic into her carefully ordinary life. Though descended from a long line of witches, she is determined to remain untouched by her family’s legacy. She banishes the manuscript to the stacks, but Diana finds it impossible to hold the world of magic at bay any longer.

For witches are not the only otherworldly creatures living alongside humans. There are also creative, destructive daemons and long-lived vampires who become interested in the witch’s discovery. They believe that the manuscript contains important clues about the past and the future, and want to know how Diana Bishop has been able to get her hands on the elusive volume.

Chief among the creatures who gather around Diana is vampire Matthew Clairmont, a geneticist with a passion for Darwin. Together, Diana and Matthew embark on a journey to understand the manuscript’s secrets. But the relationship that develops between the ages-old vampire and the spellbound witch threatens to unravel the fragile peace that has long existed between creatures and humans—and will certainly transform Diana’s world as well.” (Source)


Warning: Review contains minor spoilers of events that you’ll probably see coming from a mile away. 

This book reminds me of:

The Twilight Saga by Stephanie Meyer

What I liked least about this book:

Patriarchy patriarchy patriarchy. Diana started off as such an interesting and strong character, but she basically abandons all aspects of her independence for the love of an overbearing, possessive and violent vampire that she’s only just met. I’m not quite sure of the timeline, but my impression was that they knew each other for like two weeks and then he marries her without her realizing, and she’s totally okay with that, and then like two days after that she wants to have his baby.  I could maybe believe the romance of it all, if there weren’t lines like this anywhere in sight:

He pulled me back to the sofa and pushed me onto the cushions. “This family is not a democracy, especially not at a time like this. When I tell you to do something, you do it, without hesitation or question. Understood?” Matthew’s tone indicated that the discussion was over. (280)


“I will kill you myself before I let anyone hurt you.” The words caught in his throat. “And I don’t want to kill you. So please do what I tell you.” (281)

And here’s the scene where they get married without her knowing:

After a long while, Matthew loosened his hold enough that he could speak. “You are mine now.” (330)

And here’s when Diana finds out they are married . . . 20 pages later:

The past seemed gray and cold without Matthew. And the future promised to be much more interesting with him in it. No matter how brief our courtship, I certainly felt bound to him. And given vampires’ pack behavior it wasn’t going to be possible to swap obedience for something more progressive, whether he called me “wife” or not.  (355)

Here a review that says it all a lot better than I do.

And while we’re at it, here’s a funny explanation of the plot.

Mention something interesting then quickly change the subject! There were so many times, especially in the first half of the book, where the characters start talking about interesting things and then they just randomly change the subject. Here’s the best example I can think of, from page 105:

“You’ve heard about the murders in Westminster, I presume,” Hamish said when Matthew was completely at east.

“I have. Somebody needs to put a stop to it.”

“You?” Hamish asked.

“It’s not my job—yet.”

Hamish knew that Matthew had a theory about the murders, one that was linked to his scientific research. “You still think the murders are a sign that vampires are dying out?”

“Yes.” Matthew said.

Matthew was convinced that creatures were slowly becoming extinct. Hamish had dismissed his friend’s hypotheses at first, but he was beginning to think Matthew might be right.

They returned to less disturbing topics of conversation and, after dinner, retreated upstairs.

THAT IS IT. That’s the only mention of that subject and it’s not explained any more than that for pages and pages. Instead, Matthew returns to Oxford and then takes Diana to France for about a hundred pages where she whines about how his mom doesn’t like her or something.

Diana turns her back on her actual family, who has raised her and been there for her for the past thirty years, because she loves Matthew. She never really gives them the time of day, ignores all of their phone calls, and considers Matthew’s family her own after spending roughly a week with them.


What I liked best about this book:

The mystery of Ashmole 782 and overarching plot. The aforementioned alchemical manuscript and the mystery of its origins is what initially drew me to this book. I had really high hopes for A Discovery of Witches based on this premise. It’s an interesting idea, and takes place in a city that I lived in for over a year and a half. And the overarching plot is centered around the book. I liked how Harkness drew in history and mythology to craft her story.

The descriptions. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes the descriptions got to be a bit much, this was almost always the case when the discussion turned to food, science and, worst of all, wine, but Harkness was really good at describing settings, characters and really brought to life all of the historical manuscripts that Diana interacts with.

The ending. I may have started off this book vaguely unaware of its place as the first of three books, but after I accepted that fact, I must admit the ending left off in a good place. It left me wanting to find out more. Now I just need to figure out how much more I’m willing to dedicate to this series.

Final thoughts:

I’m torn. There were some interesting plot points that made me want to continue reading, but I’m not sure if the plot outweighs my anger at the degradation of Diana from smart, independent woman, to wife of a controlling vampire. Really, this book is at its best when it’s not trying to convince us of the deep love between Matthew and Diana.

Deborah Harkness probably shouldn’t write about wine. Ever. Here’s why:

“‘It’s as if the whole ocean is in my mouth,’ I answered, taking another sip.” (173)

“[the wine] smelled like lemon floor polish and smoke and tasted like chalk and butterscotch” (173)

“My first taste was like drinking velvet. Then there was milk chocolate, cherries, and a flood of flavors that made no sense and brought back memories of the long-ago smell of my father’s study after he’d been smoking and of emptying the shavings from the pencil sharpener in second grade.” (174) 



What do you think? Is an interesting and hopeful premise enough to make up for all of a book’s other problems?


5 thoughts on “It starts with a review of “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness

    1. Perhaps I should find out more about wine, but I personally thought these descriptions sounded pretty unappealing. That said, some of the descriptions by Matthew were a lot more appetizing.

  1. Your question: What do you think? Is an interesting and hopeful premise enough to make up for all of a book’s other problems?

    My answer is yes. Yes, of course! However, I didn’t have nearly a fraction of the problems with A Discovery of Witches that you did. Deborah Harkness is a historian – specifically researching magic and science – aka alchemy (which is one of a multitude of factors that make this entirely different than Twilight). Some of the time periods with which you take issue have alchemical significance. Some of the changed subjects that you found problematic have significance, and the reader finds out more about it later (in the next book, yes, but also in this same book) or through little effort of independent research. Also, I enjoyed many of the descriptions you did not. Did you know that Deb Harkness is a wine enthusiast with her own blog? As a food and wine lover myself, I thought her descriptions were spot on. Those descriptions took me on a journey as much as her descriptions of the people and places. It all formed a comprehensive picture.

    ADOW does leave off in a good place. It left me wanting more. From your SHOUTY CAP profane tweet to the author, Deborah Harkness, I see that you are already forewarned that while the plot thickens in the second book, but not all is revealed.

    Hopefully, the answer to your own question is also yes, and you will delve into Shadow of Night, truly enjoy it and will be able to rate it higher than a 5/10.

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful comment! I probably didn’t make it clear, but I do think that the overall story has made up for a lot of the parts I took issue with. After sitting on the finished book for a few days, I can’t help but wonder what will happen next. Since I’m a somewhat impatient reader, I might just wait until the final book is released to read Shadow of Night, just so I know that all of my question will be answered without wait! (And hopefully will be able to give the series a higher rating)

      I personally thought the wine descriptions I listed sounded very unappealing! Though, as I admitted in my comment above, some of the descriptions by Matthew were a bit more appetizing.

      And finally, my problem with the changed subjects was mostly how they were worked into the scene. In the one above, I understand that Hamish is trying to subtly wheedle information out of Matthew, but I personally found the subject change very distracting. To me, that conversation in particular screamed, “here is some information that will be important later!”

      P.S. Oh my gosh! I was so embarrassed by that tweet!! I was so frustrated with the book, and that I wouldn’t get to find out what happened immediately, and didn’t even stop to think that the author might be reading! Gah!

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