Jomari recommended A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness months and months ago. We read the blurb—witches, vampires, an enchanted manuscript—and figured we’d had enough of this stuff in recent years, thank you. Yesterday we spotted the brick-like Penguin mass-market paperback and made the mistake of opening to page one. NO! We could not stop reading, and no deadlines were met.
The novel begins in a dusty, dimly-lit reading room deep inside the Bodleian Library at Oxford…sold! The heroine Diana Bishop is a witch from a long line of witches—one of her ancestors was burned in Salem. She has resisted using magic, preferring to employ her human abilities to become an academic. Her field is the history of science (much like Harkness’s), specifically the period when astrology and alchemy give way to Newton and physics. While doing research in England she comes upon a manuscript on alchemy labelled Ashmole 782, and strange things begin to happen. For starters there is a disturbing increase in the ratio of magical creatures—witches, daemons, vampires—to humans reading in the library.
Of course they’d be hanging out in the stacks. Say you have certain abilities that the general public would find alarming, or in the case of vampires an unnaturally long life span. What field would allow you the solitude, peace and relative obscurity to pursue your esoteric interests (and keep people from noticing that you’re 300 but look 30)? The academe! In Harkness’s world, vampires go into biochemistry (Blood!), particle physics, and other areas that require many, many, many years of study. And being scholars, they are not the swooning, simpering nitwits we have come to know and loathe from recent bestsellers.
Intelligent witches and vampires—we’d almost forgotten their existence. A Discovery of Witches is a supernatural thriller full of fascinating historical detail. Fine, the prose gets gushy and the editing could be tighter (Confession: we zipped through some of the less essential chapters), but it’s smart and fun. Now to find the sequel!