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Book Review: A Discovery of Witches, part one of the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness

Vampires, daemons and witches. In the world you thought you knew.

A Discovery of Witches held me captive, I am lost in its spell forever.

This is my first book review and I’ll tell you, I’m nervous! It’s been a long time since I’ve fallen in love with a book this hard and, as with any new love affair, I want to tell you every tiny detail. But I’m also terrified about stopping you from discovering its charm for yourself.


Spoilers, in my opinion, are unforgiveable. When Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix came out, it was already known that JK had killed someone off. My husband worked nights so was reading our copy while I was at work. Now I’m not saying that him phoning me to shout out who died before I could hang up is the reason we divorced…but I’m not not saying it either.


With that in mind, I’ll choose my words carefully. Enough to entice you in without giving away its secrets.

 

Initial attraction

A Discovery of Witches was recommended to me by a colleague. Just the title was enough for my ears to prick up. The topic of witches has always drawn me in, both in fiction and history.


I’ve always had, I suppose a somewhat twisted, fascination with the witch trials of old. How horrific and unjust they were, how common and widespread, and then just seemed to stop. As if everyone realised all at once how ridiculous the concept of magic and witchcraft really is. Or is it?


Some people, especially women, are instinctively intuitive. But what is intuition? Intangible, unproveable, a sense. A sixth sense. Having been, in the past, so convinced of the existence of witchcraft, we now deny the concept of magic in any form. Yet at the same time, we so readily accept and label people as highly intuitive.


Maternal instinct and female intuition lead to protection and knowledge, which in turn can lead to power and control, even if it’s only over our own lives. Is it really so far-fetched to conclude that what was once called witchcraft has long since hidden under the guise of other names that seem less threatening to the world?


Could some of us really be the granddaughters of the witches they didn’t burn?


So what I’m saying is…the title might as well have read “Read Me Lydia.” I did. And it was wonderful.

 

First impressions

The first three lines of chapter one hooked me instantly. For three reasons:

  1. There’s a leather bound ancient book, surrounded by mystery. Yes please, I need to know everything there is to know about this book and I will not stop reading until I do!

  2. The story begins in and around Oxford University. Not that I have any connection to Oxford University, I didn’t even survive two whole terms in college. BUT, Oxford is quite close to where I live so the city is somewhat familiar. I could search google maps for various locations mentioned to really get a feel for where parts of the story take place. Like ‘oh that’s just by the theatre’ and ‘I had tea and cake in a café opposite there.’ Other people do this don’t they?...

  3. The story is told in the first person, through the eyes of Diana Bishop. Hearing a character's inner voice enables a real connection with them and their story. You can only truly know a person by being inside their head. It allows you to be taken along with them, learning as they learn, growing as they grow. And when that person happens to be a witch (I promise that isn’t a spoiler), it means you get to feel her magic.

I also very much bought into the concept that in the present day, witches, daemons and vampires are all around us, hiding in plain sight. They’re the people we work with, grew up with, walk past every day.


There’s no big reveal of this in the book. It’s just fact, it’s how things are from the very start. That frankness immediately blurs the lines between real life and fiction. It creates a delicious uneasiness and excitement of ‘could this be true?’ All my nearest and dearest, rest assured I have spent the past few months placing you all as witch, daemon, vampire or human. Just in case it is true and I need to be prepared.

 

Characters

Diana Bishop is our main protagonist. A young, American, history professor, fascinated by alchemy, it’s clear early on that she’s neither impressed nor excited to be a witch. Her desire to keep that world at arm’s length has been made easy by her lack of magical ability. Fiercely independent, she prides herself on academic achievements through hard work, powered by a strong will to create her own identity. Yet in doing so, she seems somehow lost and doesn’t seem to know herself at all.


The story is undoubtedly Diana’s story to tell. Happily, I like her. Always important if you’re going to spend a lot of time inside someone's head. Do I always agree with her thoughts and actions? No. But then that’s true even of my very favourite people in real life.


Matthew Clairmont makes himself known early on. But as natural enemies, what is this vampire’s interest in the witch Diana? Is he friend or foe? Even he doesn’t seem to be sure.

There is an alarming intensity in Matthew that can be jarring. It feels a bit uneasy and I wasn’t sure if I liked it at first. But then I figured, he’s a vampire, I’m supposed to feel uneasy around him! Surely this must be how he makes the other characters feel. It brought a real edge and realness to Matthew that enhanced the reading experience and enabled my own thoughts and comfort around him to change in line with Diana’s.


Ysabeau, Matthew’s ‘mother.’ Fiercely loyal. Savagely honest. Centuries of experience, both happy and tragic have left her battling between her head and heart. Conflicted between yearning for revenge for her husband and abiding by the De Clermont family values that he lived and died for.


Probably my favourite character. She’s the one I want to know more about and spend more time with. If there was a spin off book based on Ysabeau’s life, I’d be first in the queue (**cough**Deborah Harkness, you listening?**cough**)


Sarah and Emily, Diana’s Aunts. I love the dynamic between this couple. Their relationship with each other is authentic and beautiful. Sarah in particular has a very different personality to anyone else in the story and injects a more energetic dose of passion and fierceness than Ysabeau's more brooding style. Emily is calmer, more balanced, softer. Both of these personalities are reflected in their individual relationships with Diana and help to balance her out.


By the end of the book, an ensemble of characters emerge, all of which have their own place in the story and bring something unique. No one feels surplus to requirements and each one held my attention. I’ve always loved a story that brings together unlikely alliances against a common enemy, and the unexpected friendships and loyalties that develop as a result. This book really does this well.

 

Plot development

From page one, the action begins. There’s no slow build up, you open the book and the story immediately starts to unfold. This works well for me. As much as I love character development and scene setting, I want to feel excited about turning the page right from the get go.


Deborah Harkness does this so well in A Discovery of Witches. Still a very descriptive writer, but no time is wasted. By the time I got to chapter two, I already knew this was an exciting book that was going to grip me, and that feeling never left.


There’s great location changes and introductions of new characters that keep the momentum going and keep the story fresh. And there are twists and turns, clever little reveals or incidents here and there that make me wish I’d written it. If only I were that smart!

 

Ending

I loved the whole book, but I absolutely adored the latter few chapters. I adored the location and everything that happened there. The growth in characters, the increased focus on magic, and the build up to a cliff hanger ending, knowing that there was another book to continue the story. This all created an excited sense of urgency to know more, a feeling I haven’t experienced when reading a book for a long time. Probably not since reading Harry Potter when we counted the days to the release of the next instalment!


So thank the moon and stars that I didn’t find this trilogy until all the books were published! I'm not quite sure how I would have coped and clearly my boyfriend didn't want to risk finding out. He surprised me with book two, Shadow of Night, just as I was reading the final few pages of this one. Books and chinese takeaway, he knows how to keep me happy.


I understand that saga’s aren’t for everyone. I know of lots of people who don’t want to have to read three books before they get the satisfying conclusion they’re after. And when a saga isn’t written well, I completely agree. It can be painful.


But this is written well. The pace, the character dynamics, the ever-evolving storyline. As I got closer to the end of this book, I was so happy that it wasn’t going to be over just yet. Especially when I found out where Shadow of Night is set. But I'll save that for the next review!

 

I can’t explain enough how much I love this book. I watched the TV series after I’d finished book two, and whilst I enjoyed it, there is so much more in these pages than on the screen.

We all have different tastes, but I hope those of you who enjoy the world of witches and magic will give this a go if you haven’t already. And even those of you who aren’t so into witchcraft – it’s also a modern day thriller full of suspense with a healthy dollop of romance too….so go on, why don’t you give it a go?!


That's it for now. Next up will be, obviously, book two of the All Souls Trilogy...Shadow of Night! I'll see you then.


Lyds, out x


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