Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

discovery of witchesI read this book both as a book club discussion at the Mallorean Tavern (see the discussion thread here) and as a podcast episode (see episode post here). Through the course of these discussions, I found that this is a favorite book of many people, and while I did enjoy it, I don’t think it’s taking that place for me.

Diana Bishop is a historian studying in residence at Oxford University. Her primary focus is the history of science, including alchemy. One day, she calls up a manuscript from the Bodleian Library and realizes that it has some sort of strange magic spell on it.

Did I mention that Diana is a witch? And not just a witch, but from a famous family of witches, dating back to the Salem witch trials?

This manuscript has apparently been deemed missing for years, when it suddenly appears at Diana’s request. Because of this, magical creatures from all over Oxford start following Diana, waiting for her to request the manuscript again. One of those creatures is Matthew Clairmont, a vampire who also happens to be studying biology and genetics. Diana has long since tried to distance herself from her magical roots, leaving her vulnerable to the other witches who want to use her to get the manuscript, which is very powerful and could possibly hold the secrets of their entire existence. As Matthew tries his best to protect Diana, they are drawn into a forbidden romance, since witches and vampires are not supposed to mix. What follows is a bit of a whirlwind. We travel through England and Scotland, to France and then to Diana’s family home in America. Diana struggles to come into her powers as a witch and it is soon clear that she is very powerful indeed.

My main complaint with this book has to do with pacing. Harkness is a historian herself, so she throws in a whole lot of detail about . . . well, everything. Her writing is beautifully crafted, but her extreme attention to details sometimes drags the plot to a snail’s pace. There were many times that I thought to myself, “Just get on with it! I don’t care what kind of food they’re eating!” They could have probably shaved 100 pages off the book (which is long, at 579 pages in the paperback edition) and still been able to tell the story just fine.

Overall, the story was very interesting, I liked the characters, and I was intrigued enough to read the second book in this series as well (review coming soon). And yes, I will probably read the third book when it comes out, because I do want to find out what happens.

My GoodReads rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Categories: Books I've Read

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12 replies

  1. I really liked this book, and the next one too. Happy reading. Good review.

  2. I’m definitely in the “this is a favorite” camp! Anyone picking up this book should understand that the writer is a professor of history whose specialty is the history of science. The book is incredibly well-researched – anyone who wants to disappear down a few rabbit holes of research will have plenty to choose from. The books are rich in history, mythology, geography, religion, etc. I also believe that for at reason, this book can appeal to those who may not be usual readers of the paranormal…I encourage lovers of historical fiction or romance to try this out.

    Also, this book has been optioned by Warner Brothers. There is a fun crusade afoot to have Richard Armitage cast as Matthew Clairmont. You should check it out here: or

    • I saw some of the Richard Armitage campaigning going on. The only thing I’ve seen him in is The Hobbit, so I have a hard time picturing rough and wild Thorin Oakenshield playing the polished and urbane Matthew Clairmont. Armitage is a fabulous actor though, so who knows. I’d need to see him in something else before I can join the party on this one. 🙂

  3. I wanted to like this book but the narrative bothered me a lot…how many times are we told that Diana is drinking tea or having a bath etc. I agree with you that a lot of pages could have been cut without affecting the plot. Also the number of times that Matthew had to pick Diana up and carry her upstairs or where ever annoyed me. I wanted her to be more of a stronger character.

    • I agree. There were times where it was too much. This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. You don’t have to tell us every single detail! It was still a pretty good story and I did enjoy it, but like I said, a lot could be cut.

  4. Yep, I started this wordy read a few years ago and got distracted… still waiting to finish it! lol. Mind you I think I was only 100 or so pages into it, the plot was progressing rather slowly…

    • I probably wouldn’t have been able to finish it if I hadn’t needed to for a book club and a podcast. There were definitely times where I had to push myself to get through it. At the same time, there were times when I couldn’t put it down.

  5. Maybe I should try the audio version. I’ve just started listening to audiobooks books more, it’s opened up a whole new way of reading for me and seems to help with ‘worthy’ books that drag!


  1. Book Review: Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness | Life With No Plot

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