A Discovery of Witches is the first book in the All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness. I thoroughly enjoyed this book! I love witches just about as much as I love ghosts, so this book appealed to me from the minute I read the title.
In truth, one might initially suspect this book to be just another supernatural romance/drama wrapped up in arcane intrigue. All the hallmarks are there; witches, daemons, vampires, secret brotherhoods, star-crossed lovers, unaware humans and the like, but Deborah Harkness has taken these now-common ideas and given the reader a tale that feels fresh, despite the presence of the usual suspects. In my opinion, the foundation of Harness’ success with this is the core theme of the book: the mingling of science and magic. Both feature heavily in the book, but neither is presented as being superior to the other. They are connected, and while not new to the concept of this, I liked seeing it presented in a work of fiction. Furthermore, the supernatural factions in this book all all searching for answers as to why the exist, how they came to be and where they will go in the future. Origins. Evolution. Genetics. Philosophy. THESE are the core ideas this book discusses and I love it.
The characters are well-written, and this is the second reason why Harkness has succeeded with A Discovery of Witches. The supernaturals are presented without the “I am so glorious that I will enthrall you poor pitiful humans” type descriptions. Yes, they are capable of fantastical things, but they feel real, regardless. They have strengths and weakness, they make bad decisions and are happily devoid of over-the-top contrived preternatural glamour. Each character has a distinct, but absolutely believable personality. Their complexity is true-to-life which prevents any character from being labeled as “The quirky friend” or “the brooding, dark hero.” Additionally, while the supernaturals in the story are conventional to a degree, Harkness puts her own spins on what it is to be a vampire, a daemon, or witch. I liked that very much.
The settings of the book are interesting and well-painted (without being overly-florid in description), the pace is just right and the dialogue is solid. The book well-balances the magical and the scientific, the pragmatic and the spiritual, and this gives the the story a vibe that is earthy, ancient and mystical, as well as modern, intellectual and precise.
On a side-note, the Bishop home, chock-full of the ghosts of Bishop ancestors , is a house with a mind it’s own. As a lover of historic buildings (and haunted houses), this tickled me to no end and always made me smile.
A Discovery of Witches is a well-brewed potion, combining time-tested ingredients with newer, spicier ones that absolutely serve to increase the potency of the magic it brings. A satisfying and intriguing read. I look forward to reading Shadow of Night, the next book in the series.