When historian Diana Bishop finds an alchemical manuscript in the Bodleian Library, it’s an unwelcome intrusion of magic into her carefully ordered life. Though Diana is a witch of impeccable lineage, the violent death of her parents while she was still a child convinced her that human fear is more potent than any witchcraft.
Now Diana has unwittingly exposed herself to a world she’s kept at bay for years; one of powerful witches, creative, destructive daemons and long-lived vampires. Sensing the significance of Diana’s discovery, the creatures gather in Oxford, among them the enigmatic Matthew Clairmont, a vampire geneticist.
Diana is inexplicably drawn to Matthew and, in a shadowy world of half-truths and old enmities, ties herself to him without fully understanding the ancient line they are crossing. As they begin to unlock the secrets of the manuscript and their feelings for each other deepen, so the fragile balance of peace unravels…
Back in December there was a blog tour, including some of my favourite blogs Floor to Ceiling Books and My Favourite Books, which gave a sneak peek at the first chapter of A Discovery of Witches. I started reading and after visiting all the blogs, I was hooked. What hooked me? The setting at the Bodleian. Yes, a librarian’s heart will tell, I know. But I loved it, I could completely imagine the scene, even though I’ve never visited the Bodleian, I could smell the smells of the old books, the hushed atmosphere of a Special Collections Reading Room. Even the magic of the Ashmole 782 manuscript didn’t surprise me, because anyone who has ever held a beautifully illustrated manuscript or book, knows they have a magic all their own. I loved the bookiness of the chapter. Ms Harkness’ love of history and books shone through just that short taste of her writing. Fortunately, the bookiness and love of history stayed tangible throughout the entire book.
The story is saturated with history. I loved the creatures – witch, daemon, and vampire – and that they all had their own histories. The way the vampires were introduced with flashbacks of their existence and the way the Bishop family history was rooted in Salem added depth to the setting. I shared Diana’s raptness every time Matthew started reminiscing. I can completely understand the allure of someone who has actually known the figures in history you’ve been studying your whole academic career.
I did have to get over the fact that Matthew was a vampire. I know he didn’t sparkle, but still… he’s more Angel than Spike (in his early days that is) and I generally like my vampires more truly evil. Then again, in the setup of this world with the concept of the nature of the creatures as posited, it does make sense for vampires to be like they are here and Matthew is said to be somewhat of an exceptional specimen of the race. Once I got passed it and let myself be sucked into the world Ms Harkness created, I couldn’t put the book away and lost myself in its pages. I got a kick out of the houses, Sept-Tours, the Old Lodge, and the Bishop Farm, especially the sense that the farm has its own consciousness and creates rooms as needed. That was such a cool concept!
I liked the build up of conflict; from internal to external. The book starts with Diana struggling with the magic inside her and while this conflict is gradually resolved throughout the narrative, a new conflict is brewing and the book ends with war threatening. I also love the field of tension between the mixture of science, myth and magic. Especially the way humans have twisted the truth into myth to explain certain facts about the creature races and about vampires in particular! It’s an interesting element, especially as it also emphasises how humanity tends to mythologise history.
The only thing I was let down by, was the ending. Not that it was bad, mind you, but nothing I’d read about the book so far (I’ve avoided reading other people’s reviews before writing my own) or anything on the cover gave me the impression that this wasn’t a standalone novel, but part of a trilogy or series. So to come to the end of the book and have the story clearly set up for a sequel was kind of jarring, it would have been nice if had said so on the cover. If going in you are aware that there will be more books and if you’re willing to accept non-evil vampires, A Discovery of Witches is definitely worth a read, especially if you also love history. Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting for the next instalment of this tale, because I’m curious to know what happens next.