Quest for the origins of supernormal species tantalizes in “A Discovery of Witches”


A Discovery of Witchesis clever, interesting, well-written fiction that is so good I read it twice.  I almost never do that. It is one of the most engrossing, entertaining novels I’ve read in a long, long time.  I picked it up on the recommendation of a friend for a light romantic read, and while there was romance, there was so much more.  It had me hooked from the first page and I did not speak anyone for three days while I read it and its sequel “Shadow of Night.”  I’m just sorry I have to wait for the third volume in the trilogy…and the film.

In the world created by author Deborah Harkness witches, vampires and daemons live alongside us ordinary humans.  In this supernormal world we meet Diana Bishop, American descendant of Salem witch Rebecca Bishop. Diana’s is at England’s prestigious Oxford University as a visiting history of science professor reading 16th century manuscripts.  During her research Diana comes across an enchanted book on alchemy that immediately stirs up the vampires, witches and daemons.  The book–Ashmole 782–is thought to be a magical “Origin of the Species,” and each faction wants it for its own purposes but none has been unable to access it.  Diana has a unique ability to attract and open the book, and the supernormals are quite willing to threaten Diana’s life to gain access.  But Diana’s a witch who has turned her back on magic, and has no idea what she did or why the book responded to her alone.  Neither does the Congregation, the governing body of supernatural beings, whose attention is now as riveted on Diana and the powers she may possess as it is on Ashmole 782.

Also interested in Ashmole 782 is devastatingly handsome 1500 year old vampire Mathew Clairmont (I picture Eric Bana in this role, Hollywood hear me!).  He wants the book as much as the other supernormals, but with a slightly different purpose. He is a geneticist and has discovered that each supernormal species is showing early signs of extinction.  He believes the book may explain how the four species developed from one, and how to save them.

When Matthew meets Diana sparks fly, passion simmers and they are inexplicably drawn to each other.  But their love defies long-established rules of species segregation and brings them into further conflict with those seeking the magical book.They find shelter with their families, overcoming established prejudices, as they seek to understand Diana’s power as a witch, her reluctance to use it and how she, and she alone, could call Ashmole 782.  Villains materialize, good conquers evil–for the moment–but the stakes are high.

And I can’t tell you more.  I’d spoil it.  you have to read it.  Then we can talk about it.

I’m not a huge vampire-witch fan, and definitely no Twi-Hard, so the fact I loved this book comes as a surprise.  The mix of history and magic pulled me in along with some great characters.  Harkness draws her characters very well – there’s lots of conflict, large and small, and plenty of room for character growth, change.   The themes are fundamental and universal: where do we come from? How do we fit in? Why can’t we love where we choose?  The stakes–survival of each species–could not be higher.

I loved the settings–Upstate New York, rural France and (sigh) Oxford, England.  The production company will have an easy time with location shoots.  Harkness did a particularly great job of describing life in Oxford.  Once upon a time I lived there, so I relished the descriptions of the river, the colleges and the surround area. (Sigh. I must go watch some Morse or Inspector Lewis, just for a fix.)

If the Oxford setting drew me in, what kept me going was the history of  science that permeates the novel.  It kept the book fresh, and different.  From discussing the works of early alchemists in the context of the development of modern scientific enquiry, to framing the Origins of the Species and work on extinction as one of the driving forces behind Matthew Clairmont.  Brilliant!

Loved, loved it. Deb Harkness please hurry with the last book in the trilogy!

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9 comments on “Quest for the origins of supernormal species tantalizes in “A Discovery of Witches”

  1. Sheila says:

    This is by far one of the best reviews of ADOW I have seen. I’ve been slightly obsessed with the books since picking the first one up 2 years ago. As you seem to enjoy the more weighty aspects of the story, I can recommend a great Facebook discussion group called All Souls Trilogy Discussion Group. Deb is a regular participant. Also, I’m 100% in the Armitage for Clairmont camp. You can check out that crusade on or

    • Hi Sheila, thanks for the very kind comment. I really enjoyed the book. But! Much as I loved Richard Armitage in MI5 (aka Spooks in the UK) and the film Catherine Cookson’s North & South, he is too much a brooding Northerner for me to see him as Matthew. I always see Armitage as a diamond in the rough, and don’t get me wrong I do think he is splendid. I just see Clairmont as a more polished, refined guy with more hidden menace…which made me think of Bana, mostly because of his acting in “The Other Boleyn Girl” …

      But I don’t care who plays him, just so they get it to the screen! I’ll head off to the discussion group now…who we want for Gallowglass? I was thinking of Brendan Gleeson…I’m saving Ewan McGregor for Hamish.


  2. Mike Brain says:

    Yes I have read and enjoyed both parts 1 and 2, especially ‘meeting’ all those historical characters ‘fleshed out’ by Deborah. I also have written a review which will be used in the Bookshelf section of WG.



  3. I love the things that I learned while reading this novel – had to return it to the library before I finished it, so I am just going to have to buy it and not rush through it

    • Me too! I got engaged as a reader about early scentific methods (and would not have thought that would interest me) and danger signals for extinction. This was not at all what I expected when I picked it up. You must finish it and come back and tell me what you thought (then let’s talk Book 2) Thanks for stopping! G

  4. M.B. Culver says:

    Loved this, but can’t see Eric Bana as Matthew…needs someone English, even prettier/more exotic-looking, with light-colored eyes. For some reason I keep seeing Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s not that pretty, but brings the danger (and the sex appeal). For Diana I have no idea. Emily Blunt with an American accent?

    • I’ll have to go look up Benedict Cumberbatch. Richard Armitage would also go great, but he is so northern not sure. What about Rupert Penry-Jones? He’s very pretty…Hamish=Ewan McGregor Diana=Amy McAdams Ysabeau=Sophie Marceau or Emmanuelle Beart That’s my cast!

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