What Am I Reading This Week?
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
At first glance, A Discovery of Witches appears as typical YA fare masquerading as an adult fantasy: Girl discovers she has powers. Girl meets dark mysterious brooding boy. Lots of bad people want to find girl and use her power for themselves.
Luckily, Harkness approaches the usual tropes with a deep sense of maturity and confidence. It is definitely not for teenagers!
Diana Bishop is a thirty-something history professor at Yale, currently on sabbatical in Oxford. She has led a completely ordinary existence, despite the fact that she is a witch; a scion of two great and powerful families. In this world, witches are one of three creatures, the others being daemons and vampires, that freely roam the Earth among us humans. While conducting research for an upcoming conference, she innocently requests an alchemical book known as Ashmole 782. Little does she know, this book has been lost to the magical word for over 200 years and many powerful and curious creatures before her had been trying to get their hands on it ever since.
She senses that the book is enchanted but instead of investigating further she glances through it, takes a few notes and sends it back to the shelves of the Bodleian Library. Her ability to summon the book raises the curiosity of witches, vampires and daemons worldwide and soon she becomes the centre of attention in a world she has removed herself from since she was a child, after the brutal murder of her parents.
One of the curious is Professor Matthew Clairmont, a vampire over 1500 years old, and a well respected and highly regarded researcher at Oxford University. He first encounters Diana one night in the library, in one of the rare instances where she knowingly uses magic. Soon after, he takes the role as her protector, once creatures descend on the library. As the book progresses this protectiveness evolves into a deep and true love, that is complicated by the fact that it is forbidden by a centuries old agreement handed down from the Congregation.
As the book goes on, Matthew and Diana begin to unravel the mystery of Ashmole 782, why it decided to reveal itself now and only to Diana, what it contains and implies about the existence and possible extinction of the creatures, and just how far others are willing to go with respect to Diana to claim the text and the astonishing extent of her long dormant magic.
For Science! – This is book is fairly heavy on research and biology jargon which might be a deterrent for some, but as an actual scientist, I absolutely loved it. I believe this is the first instance I have picked up a book and had a main character that was so close to me on a realistic basis (maturity/age & educational background especially).
Books about fierce princesses in Dystopian societies will always have a special place in my literary heart, but it was refreshing to relate to a main character on such a grounded, true to life way. Talks of grants, hours and hours spent in the library, dissertations and conference presentations rang unbelievably true. The scientific hypotheses and background put forward were interesting and added an extra layer of mystery and excitement. The powers and abilities exhibited by the creatures were rooted in something real, making them seem all the more fascinating.
Supporting Characters – I loved every other character I was introduced to that was not Diana and Matthew! It’s rare to have so many multidimensional and interesting characters that fall out of the purview of the main characters: from the harsh leaders of the witch community who push Diana to her emotional and physical limits, Matthew’s (mostly) immortal family which includes Ysabeau, Marthe, Phillipe, Marcus, Baldwin, Miriam and Hamish (Love.Him.), to Diana’s aunts Sarah and Emily and the various friends they make and involve throughout the story. I felt I understood and appreciated every one of them and the role they played in unraveling the puzzle. I found them all so interesting and I hope we get even more insight into their personalities as the series goes on.
Alchemy/History – I have very little knowledge of the history of alchemy beyond the basic ‘turn lead into gold’ and this book made me want to look into it more. This book also focuses quite a bit on history, which I think is a requirement of any book featuring a vampire, otherwise what is the point of being alive for centuries unending? For all the chemistry, history buffs out there this book hits the sweet spot.
Magic – The magic in this book was in short: AWESOME! It was a different take on magic than we are typically used to. Yes, there are spell books and grimoires, but there are several new elements introduced, such as a witch being able to sense if there is another creature around because she can literally feel their gaze. The eyes of another witch feels like a tickle, a vampire’s gaze feels like ice and the gaze of daemons feels like a kiss. A witch ability is, at its most basic, down to simply genetics and practice.
Magic extends to animals (Tabitha the cat, who is not Diana’s biggest fan) and inanimate objects (the house is awesome).
Witches are able to possess a wide range of powers including control over the elements, the ability to predict the future, shapeshift, spell casting, timewalking, flying, healing, the ability to talk to the dead, telekinesis mind reading, telepathy and empathy among several others.
Insta-love? – The entire book takes place over a few months, but Diana and Matthew fall in love within the space of a few short weeks. Don’t get me wrong, I love them together, I love their story, I am a definite fan girl, but I can’t reconcile the idea of two people being properly loved-up after only a few weeks. It’s ridiculous in teenagers and unfitting in two nearly-forty-year-olds!
Smart people doing dumb things – Not going to spoil what specifically brought this up but just be prepared to shake your head and feel incredulous.
A Discovery of Witches is a mature, thoughtful and vivid book perfect for any fan of YA looking to venture into adult fiction.