A Discovery of Witches – Book Review

A Discovery of Witches book cover

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Available on Goodreads

My rating: 4/5 stars

I didn’t plan to do any book reviewing on this blog, but after my post about the A Song of Ice and Fire series I got to thinking that it might be fun. This will be the first in a hopefully ongoing book review series.

Here we go.

“It begins with absence and desire. It begins with blood and fear. It begins with A Discovery of Witches.” – A Discovery of Witches

I loved this book. I loved the incorporation of real-world history, the supernatural elements, the slow unravelling of mysteries, and most of all, the forbidden love. These aspects all combined to make A Discovery of Witches (ADOW) a book I found extremely hard to put down.

ADOW is the first instalment in Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy, in which we follow the story of brilliant young science historian, and witch, Diana Bishop. In ADOW, our tale begins when Diana unwittingly calls up a bewitched manuscript from the stacks of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, much to the interest of other creatures – witches, daemons, and vampires – around her. Having ignored her roots as a witch and her inherited abilities throughout most of her life, Diana quickly decides to send it back, but trouble begins, nevertheless. Soon Diana finds herself in the company of a handsome and mysterious vampire geneticist – Matthew Clairmont – whilst trying to solve the mystery of the manuscript and to escape the clutches of creatures that want to get ahold of it, and her. In this first book we also see Diana begin on a path towards understanding and accepting herself and her abilities.

The tale is entirely intriguing. As the mystery of the manuscript and why all the creatures are so interested in it began to unfold, I found myself completely invested in finding out the answers. The first book begins to shed light, revealing the beginnings of the answers to these questions, but it still leaves plenty to anticipate in the remaining books.

Adding to the story’s intrigue are the historical references which help establish a relationship between the book’s world and our own. ADOW benefits entirely from being written by an actual historian. Harkness used her knowledge of real-world history and intertwined it with her supernatural vision, creating an intricate backdrop for her story.

Alongside the revealing of mysteries, and the trouble that begins to unfurl, we also witness the development of a bond between Diana and Matthew. I was enamoured with their love, which felt real and earned, and in turn the book. And as characters, the two are well-developed beyond their romance. I understand who they are and how their experiences have shaped them and the choices they make, and I enjoyed watching how the each grew during the story.

I did take issue with several points in the book, but as I felt like these would have been less evident to me without the show adaptation – which I watched before reading the book – I decided not to discuss them in the book review.

Despite those criticisms, I enjoyed the book. Deborah Harkness has created an absorbing story, and I find myself greatly anticipating the books, and discoveries, to come. Upon completing this review I find myself very excited to be able to move on to the next book.

If you enjoy the supernatural, mysteries, and tales about forbidden love, A Discovery of Witches is definitely a book you should pick up.

Comparison to the show

I think the greatest proof that I enjoyed reading A Discover of Witches is probably that during the course of my read I re-watched the TV show – with the same name – several times.

Given that, I had plenty of opportunity to compare the book and the show and those comparisons led me to notice some aspects of the book I found a little disappointing.

One difference between the show and the book that caused some disappointment, was the disparity in racial diversity. The book doesn’t completely lack diversity, but the amount is definitely reduced in comparison to the show. Whilst I often don’t notice race in stories because I’m more focused on the plot, noticing this difference brought to mind the lack of racial diversity that is often cited when it comes to fantasies and stories about the supernatural. Again, I don’t always notice it, but as a woman of colour and a fan of such stories, I’m nevertheless disappointed when I do. Given that species – i.e. human, witch, daemon, or vampire – and not race is the focus and basis of discrimination in the book, I appreciate the shows choice to include a more racially diverse cast than what the book would have prompted.

Other changes I really appreciated were the differences in Diana and Matthew’s characters. In the book Diana is definitely resilient, but the show adds strength to her character and makes her less passive. In addition, Matthew is less controlling and a more likable character. Whilst he is not alarmingly controlling, there were moments in the book that did garner some discomfort. If I hadn’t watched the show first, I don’t think I’d have liked book Matthew as much, and I might have felt at last slightly less enthusiastic about his relationship with Diana.

In terms of storytelling, I’m torn. The show drops several plot-points which in the book serve to add intrigue, depth, and information. On the other hand, because it isn’t limited to the perspective of Diana or any other character, the show has a chance to better explore the other characters involved in the story. The show also changes certain story elements to add drama and excitement, which I found compelling.

Given the difference in platform, it’s difficult to make a fair comparison, but for the reasons above I would say that as much as I enjoyed the elements that are unique to the book, my preference leans towards the show.

That said, I have yet to finish the All Souls trilogy, and as the show has only had one season so far, there’s still time for that to change.

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