Review: A Discovery of Witches

As someone who was first acquainted with Deborah Harkness as a historian, I was intrigued when I found out her recent book A Discovery of Witches was a work of fiction. The fact that it debuted at number 2 on the New York Times Bestseller hardcover fiction list in 2011 made me even more determined to read it. When I started, I was immersed in the Bodleian library, and like all her other readers, I am now trapped, waiting to finish reading the All Souls trilogy.

It is apparent that Harkness’ life as a historian has influenced her work. The many hours spent reading in the Bodleian library and living in Oxford has given her description depth and detail that many amateurs would struggle with. A Discovery of Witches focuses on the life of Diana Bishop, a modern day historian like Harkness who calls up an enchanted manuscript from the depths of the Bodleian Library archives. Yet, Diana is not just a historian. She is a witch, descended from parents Stephen and Rebecca, who were themselves powerful witches. Their disappearance when Diana was seven years old meant that she now shies away from magic, believing that their talent was what got her parents killed. However, by calling up the manuscript, Diana has attracted the attention of every magical creature in Oxford, witches, demons and a 1,500 year-old vampire. She is thus forced to face her past and use her magic, in a quest that could reveal the origins of demons, witches and vampires and expose them to the humans they live among.

The fact that Harkness writes well and her story is well-researched because of her historical background means that the paranormal story about witches, vampires and demons, reads like historical fiction. The setting of the second book in the trilogy, Shadow of Night, in Elizabethan London, means the reader is convinced that possibly, just possibly, some of this work could be true. The introduction of famous alchemist John Dee and playwrights like Christopher Marlow makes her setting vivid. For those fascinated by the history of alchemy and Harkness’ historical works, this is well worth the read. Even if you are not a fan of historical fiction this novel could still be for you, with elements of romance and mystery abounding. So, if you want to read a forbidden love story that’s better than Twilight and are missing a magical world now that Harry Potter is (apparently…) over, try the All Souls trilogy – it’s a paranormal adventure for grown ups. Unlike the rest of us, you won’t have to wait long for the trilogy to conclude as the final part, The Book of Life, was released on July 16, 2014.

Other works by Harkness include the historical non-fiction John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy and the End of Nature (1999) and The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (2007). Harkness is also the author of the blog Good Wine Under $20 (

Rating: 3.5/5

By Emma-Louise Groucutt © 2014 


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