Saturday, January 12, 2013

Review: A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy #1)

With a scholar's depth and the touch of a great storyteller, Deborah Harkness has woven a tale of passion and obsession; the collision of magic, alchemy, and science; and the closely guarded secrets of an enchanted world.

A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness, is the first novel in the All Souls Trilogy. The plot follows Diana Bishop, a renowned historian of alchemy, on sabbatical at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. She has a deep secret: she is the last descendant of the famous witch, Bridget Bishop of Salem, Massachusetts. When her parents were killed in her childhood, she repressed her magical gifts and focused on her brain power, having attended Oxford and Yale.

When she calls the mysterious alchemical text known as Ashmole 782 from the stacks, she can feel its power and see hidden writing moving on its pages. After she returned the book to the stacks, she has attracted the attention of many beings -- vampires, daemons, and other witches -- who start to hang around the Bodleian Library. Among them is the eminent and attractive professor of neuroscience and genetics, Matthew Clairmont. He also happens to be a 1500-year-old vampire who wants to unlock the secrets behind the mystery of Ashmole 782. Diana starts to wonder what is so special about Ashmole 782 and why are these beings waiting for her to recall it. She doesn't realize that the alchemical text has been lost for centuries, and it sudden appearance has stirred the supernatural world.

Diana's life will change forever when dangerous foes ransack her Oxford home and threaten her existence. Under Matthew's protection, she leaves England for the chateaus and mountains of Auvergne and later to her ancestral home in upstate New York. Diana must come to terms with ancient taboos and her own family's conflicted witch history. In addition, she must accept her fate if she wants to survive the turmoil behind Ashmole 782.

A Discovery of Witches is a strange but fascinating novel of forbidden love that brilliantly synthesizes magic and history. The story takes place on two continents (North America and Europe) and has readers navigating dangerous passion, intellectual intrigue, and mystical beings. More surprisingly, the author, Deborah Harkness, is a historian of science and medicine at the University of Southern California. She brings her scholarly talents to write a vivid portrayal of magic, suspense, and dangerous secrets. Her storytelling skills are so rich and intricate that you can immediately tell the author is an expert on Renaissance-era European cultural and intellectual history. In an interview, Harkness stated that

Q. You’ve written two well-received scholarly books. What inspired you to write a novel?

It’s pretty hard not to notice the popular preoccupation with witches, vampires, and things that go bump in the night. But we aren’t the first to be fascinated with these creatures. Today, we often imagine them into fantastic otherworlds, but the people I study believed that such magical beings were living alongside them in this world. So I started thinking, if there are vampires and witches, what do they do for a living—and what strange stories do humans tell to explain away the evidence of their presence? A Discovery of Witches began with the answers to those questions as I essentially reimagined our modern world through the eyes of medieval and Renaissance people.

The protagonist, Diana Bishop, is a brave and stubborn researcher from an ancient lineage of New England witches. She does not want her fate, but an ancient force who desires her power leaves Diana no choice but to awaken her magic. She will need all the training she can assemble to face a battle beyond her wildest imagination. In addition, she discovers that her forbidden love with Matthew Clairmont, an ancient vampire, may forever alter the supernatural balance between witches, vampires, an daemons.

Overall, I am fortunate that I stumbled upon A Discovery of Witches on Harkness was able to bridge her scholarly interests with the popular paranormal fantasy/romance genre. While the book looks intimidating at 580 pages, I fell in love with the plot after the first chapter. It focused on character development, the romantic relationship between Diana and Matthew, and the emergence of Diana's unique magical abilities. I look forward to reading about Diana and Matthew's amazing journey in the next book.

Stay tuned for the second novel in the All Souls Trilogy, Shadow of Night.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This book series is enchanting. It transports you so fully that the characters feel real. A true treasure.