A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy #1) by Deborah Harkness
Published in 2011 by Headline.

Links: Goodreads.

Source: purchased (paperback).

Genre: paranormal fantasy.

My rating:

When historian Diana Bishop opens an alchemical manuscript in the Bodleian Library, it’s an unwelcome intrusion of magic into her carefully ordered life. Though Diana is a witch of impeccable lineage, the violent death of her parents while she was still a child convinced her that human fear is more potent than any witchcraft.

Now Diana has unwittingly exposed herself to a world she’s kept at bay for years; one of powerful witches, creative, destructive daemons and long-lived vampires. Sensing the significance of Diana’s discovery, the creatures gather in Oxford, among them the enigmatic Matthew Clairmont, a vampire genticist.

Diana is inexplicably drawn to Matthew and, in a shadowy world of half-truths and old enmities, ties herself to him without fully understanding the ancient line they are crossing. As they begin to unlock the secrets of the manuscript and their feelings for each other deepen, so the fragile balance of peace unravels…


I first read A Discovery of Witches several years ago – probably when the paperback was first published. And I liked it a lot! I bought the second book of the trilogy and then got stuck about a quarter way in and never finished reading it. Since I’m making an effort to finish more series, and since I already own 2 out of 3 books, I decided to give it another go.

First of all, I have to say I loved the worldbuilding in this one. The magical creatures (witches, vampires, and daemons) have very interesting histories and they seemed very well thought out. The historical aspect of the novel is also stunning, which isn’t surprising given that Harkness teaches history. I’m totally helpless when it comes to history (I blame bad school teachers), so I have no idea if the history stuff is factual, but it sure as hell sounds impressive.

I took a half star/heart from my rating this time around *le gasp*. Maybe it was because I already knew the story but I kept noticing things that didn’t bother me as much when I first read it. Mostly, I’m talking about Matthew and his antiquated views of what women should or should not be doing with their lives. His overbearing attitude to Diana (both before and after they become a couple) was horrible and I hated that it was explained away with “oh, he’s like that because he’s a vampire and also 1500 years old, so don’t bother trying to change him.”

To her credit, Diana does try to change him – she just has little to no success with it. Her initial reaction to meeting a vampire was also refreshingly normal (she kind of freaks out and tries to escape) compared to most other vampire novels.

I liked Diana a lot, despite her questionable taste in men. She’s very good at controlling every aspect of her life – until she isn’t. But she doesn’t crumble and cry when things go to shit but makes the best of her situation. She’s fiercely loyal and quick to love, which are both traits I admire in characters.

The plot is also sufficiently intriguing that I got sucked into the story again and managed to finish this 700-page beast in a matter of days. I’ll try not to wait too long before I tackle the sequel this time so I don’t forget what’s happened in this book.


Have you read A Discovery of Witches? What did you think?

Do you have any favourite books that feature history this strongly?

I’d love to hear from you! :)

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  • Despite the fact that I LOVE witches and own a copy of this book, I have yet to actually read it. Le sigh. I need to fix that soon and of course, I wanted to read your thoughts on it. I’ll be looking out for your reviews for the rest of the books too. I’m glad you still enjoyed this one for the most part upon rereading. I can see why Matthew bugged you for sure but all in all this sounds like an excellent read!! Wonderful review :)

    • Well, you’ll be waiting a bit for the rest of the reviews, I haven’t even started the second one yet!

      It’s a really good read and if you’re not too bothered my Matthew being an occasional pain in the a**, you’ll love it, I think! The historical parts and the worldbuilding were especially good.

  • I have been wanting to read this one since forever, but I’v never picked it up. Part of me is just nervous because of the length of the book. The world building sounds stunning! I hadn’t heard about Matthew’s antiquated ways of viewing women, but it’s good to know beforehand. Now, I’ll be more prepared for it. I’m glad this was still good for you the second time around!

    • It’s a really fast read – at least it was for me! So unless the length is really a deal-breaker for you, I wouldn’t worry about it.

      And yeah, Matthew’s views can be antiquated sometimes (okay, all the time). I don’t remember that bothering me so much the first time around though.

  • I hated this book so hard but realize I’m in the minority, lol. Matthew is the worst but unlike you Diana didn’t do anything for me either. I kept feeling like I was being told how smart, strong and awesome she was rather than her actually demonstrating it. II think I was just not impressed with the character development at all. I’m glad it works for you though! It has such a cool premise and I have to say where they were headed with book two sounded pretty darn intriguing.

    • You should talk to Mogsy, I think. I saw her review on GR and she ranted a lot, if I remember correctly. :D Matthew was really a pain sometimes, I agree. I was definitely more annoyed with him this time around.

      Yeah, I’m curious about the past setting, I think it could be really good!

  • I’ve been needing to do re-reads of earlier books in series lately too. It’s so frustrating when you try to read a sequel and you can’t remember what’s going on. This book is on my shelf–hope to get to it sooner rather than later!

    • I try to continue series as soon as possible but I left this one way too long. I didn’t remember anything beyond the fact that the MCs were a witch and a vampire. :)

  • I read this because of witches (what more reason do I need) also because of history. I liked those aspects of the book best, to be honest. I found Matthew bothered me in my first attempt to read this (it took about 5 attempts before I managed to get through it) and I do think it was his controlling nature that was off putting and I hate how vampires and their character flaws are always written off because of their age. You can learn and adapt with time, surel vampires would be better at it than anyone. That being said, I was worn down much like Diana was and I kind of fell for this book (and Matthew and his controlling ways). I wish I could say why exactly, but I can’t. This book just has that something which works for me despite it’s flaws. I did find the second book was a lot harder going, though (at least second time around). They are long books and it’s hard to work up the motivation to read. I do think once you’re hooked into this story you are hooked. Also, the thing I loved about the second book was the fact you saw more of Matthew’s family and they really are what redeem him as a character for me. Fingers crossed the second book is more successful this time around for you.

    • Oh that is such a good point. Why are vampires permitted to be controlling asshats if they’re old? Like they can’t learn anything new during their centuries. I mean, if he’s embraced computers and mobile phones, why the hell can’t he embrace feminism?

      Ah, okay, now I’m really looking forward to digging into the second book. I have it right here, it’s looking at me from the shelf, slightly dusty. Will read soon.

  • I plan to read this one day, and your review is definitely keeping my interest up! As for historical books with supernatural elements, have you read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova?

    • I haven’t read that, I’ll have to look it up! Thank you for the suggestion, Lorraine.

  • Oh no….oh no, no, no. As much as I love historical fantasy, bookish heroines, and witches, I just cannot abide the “women must do x and not y” attitude. I just can’t. If Matthew had learned the error of his ways, that’d be one thing…but it doesn’t seem like that’s the case here.

    Sorry this wasn’t as good the second time around as the first. If it makes you feel any better, the first book I ever reviewed on my blog was by JLA and I gave it 4 stars….yeah.

    • Yeah I think you’d better stay clear of this one! :D I’d heard (from Becky) that in the second book, you learn more about Matthew’s family and that it sort of redeems his wicked ways, but I’m still uncertain if ANYTHING would excuse being a control freak. Eh. I’ll read the second book because I already have it at home and report back. :)

  • I picked up on some things that bothered me about Matthew (and about Matthew’s and Diana’s relationship) the second and third time I read it, too, but somehow I still love it!