A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness: Review and Giveaway!

5th January 2012

*This book was sent to my by Lindsay at Viking/Penguin in exchange for an honest review.

The first novel in the All Souls Trilogy, A Discovery of Witches is Diana Bishop’s story. Linked to witches before her, all the way to Salem, Diana shuns magic…except for every once in a while when her washing machine overflows. She’s stringent, always on guard against it, though her academic studies bely her interests. Diana studies alchemy, those intersections between magic and science. Much to her aunt’s dismay, once Diana’s parents died in Nigeria under mysterious circumstances, Diana has wanted nothing to do with her heritage. However, a strange book she calls for in the Bodleian Library at Oxford will change all that. The book, Ashmole 782, apparently interests all the magical world as its secrets pertain to them, and Diana’s research will lead her much deeper into the world of witches, vampires (and one particular vampire), and daemons than she ever wanted to go.

I have this bad habit. It’s kind of a secret, but when everyone and their mom is reading a particular book or talking about it, I am instantly turned off. Can’t help it. My sister thinks I’m a book snob, but I swear I’m not. You guys see what I read. It’s varied. I don’t only read highbrow books. Anyway, somebody stop this incessant rambling!

So. Discovery of Witches was one of those books. My mom and sis both read it. Every blogger I could imagine read and loved it. It was too much. But the fuss died down, and Lindsay at Viking sent me the paperback. Oh. My. Gosh. I can only liken my response to my total annihilation of Hostess cupcakes, should they ever be near me. It looks a little something like this…

and please, oh please do not Google "animal eating quickly" - it's disturbing

But yeah – that’s about right. I know those Hostess cupcakes aren’t really the best thing for me, but they taste. so. damn. good. Similarly, A Discovery of Witches is not the best thing for me. Why? Because seriously, Diana’s love interest, the vampire Matthew Clairmont, reminds me of one of my eternal loves – Jamie from Outlander, who turns my insides to mush. (Side note: if you haven’t read it yet, shame on you.) I felt like I was making moony eyes every time he walked in the room – Matthew, that is.

Diana meets Matthew when she thinks she’s unobserved in the library and uses just a little magic to pull a book from a high shelf. Instantly, she senses Matthew’s presence. In Harkness’s world, vampires, witches, and daemons don’t associate with one another. However, after Diana has put back Ashmole 782, suddenly the Bodleian library is full of creatures, and Matthew is oddly protective of her. Think Twilight for adults but better written.

That said, I will say there were moments when my gagging from Twilight was brought forth. Similarly to Bella, Diana is often swept into Matthew’s arms somewhat needlessly. Diana is a strong woman, a well-respected academic who has lived on her own and fended for herself. Her personality changes, though, as she and Matthew become involved. Granted, she is overwhelmed at her sudden re-entrance into the magical world and its secrets, but it grated. The story sucked me in nonetheless.

The other thing that bothered me were the sometimes blatant means of exposition. Diana uses the word chimera, but her witch aunt asks what it is, leading to the author’s definition of the creature. First, I already knew what a chimera is, and I was pretty darn sure a witch would as well. To me, this type of explanation is a bit lazy.

BUT. If you’re looking for a can’tputitdownnotgoingtosleepuntilIfinishthisbook, read this one and get ready for the second in the series this July. I assure you I will be.

[P.S. I didn’t want to give anything away, but if you’ve read this, do you see the Outlander parallel? Or is it just me?]

[P.P.S. Don’t miss Steph (from Steph & Tony Investigate) interviewing Deborah Harkness at BookPage. I knew there had to be an Outlander connection.]

Oh wait! I promised a giveaway, didn’t I? Thanks to the people at Viking/Penguin, I am giving away a paperback copy of A Discovery of Witches to one lucky reader. All you have to do is leave a comment, including your email address, telling me your biggest literary crush. So go on, do it!

  • Amy

    So, number one will always be Mr. Darcy… but I have to confess a nostalgic crush on “The Master” from Master and Margarita that has lingered since college. I went through the tortured artist phase at the time and he was the personification of it in a brilliant novel.

    • That’s one of my favorite bloggers absolute favorite book. You’ve sealed the deal. I have to read it!

      • Amy

        Oh, you really must! The Master and Margarita… and American Gods.

        • Dang it. I keep forgetting about that one.

  • Yay! I’ve been wanting to read this one for awhile now and if I don’t win your copy, I’m getting the Kindle edition.


    Biggest literary crush: Rhett Butler. Don’t judge me!

    • Honey, Rhett Butler is hot. As a feminist, it’s very hard for me to come to terms with some of my crushes, but by golly, he’s one of mine.

  • Annesbookgarden

    Great review, I agree with you on a lot of points. I did also feel like it was Twilight for adults at times, but I really enjoyed the story and am looking forward to the next book.

    My biggest literary crush would be Jamie Fraser from the Outlander books. I love how you put it in your post, he turns my insides to mush. I have not read a character in a book yet to compare to him.

    Thanks for the giveaway, I would love a copy of this book!


    • Thank you for stopping by! As I said, I still totally loved this book. Unashamedly.

      And YES! Score one from Jamie Fraser. When he says “sassenach,” I die a little. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Andi

        Now I get your original “Sassenach” comment to me, Jenn! *melts*

        • Mmm. Jamie Fraser. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Sherrie

    Great review, Jenn. Does it make me a pedophile if I say Peeta from the Hunger Games? Several years older of course hahaha. Maybe I’ll just stick with Mr. Bingley. smf85@yahoo.com

    • Haha! No, you’re not a pedophile, and he is very attractive (at least in my mind). ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Amy

      Great crushes! Not mainstream, but really thoughtful.

  • Andi

    Jenn, Jenn, Jenn…

    I’ve been fighting the urge to download this book AND I CANNOT FIGHT ANYMORE!!!! Must have it!

    • Don’t fight it. I have a feeling you’d love it. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Andi

        I loved it…enough. And we share a brain, my friend.

        • Exactly. You have to turn off your inner feminist and your cynical side. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Britton

    I have been wanting to read this for a while. I can’t say I have a literary crush. You know most of my reads are about the holocaust so that would the jacked up. I did read a book to Georgia yesterday about a purple puppy with a big nose…he was cute!


    Britton P.

    • Britton – you’re hilarious. I hope you don’t have a crush on anyone involved in the Holocaust.

      We’ll take the purple puppy!

  • Wendy

    I have been looking for some of the reader blogs I’ve been following to comment on this book. This is the FIRST book I have ever, in my life, reread immediately after finishing it for the first time. I just wasn’t ready to leave that magical world. Now that you mention it, it does have many characteristics that I also loved about the Outlander series. I don’t necessarily think the story lines are the same, but the love story certainly does capture my heart in the same way. I think I have to admit that Jamie is more my type, if only because his flesh isn’t cold! I’m glad you fell in love with this book too and weren’t completely turned off by the hype. Thanks for finally giving me another opinion to read about it! I will definitely be purchasing the sequel the minute it hits the shelves.

    • Wendy! I’m so glad you stopped by and are so enthusiastic about the book. And you’re right. I wasn’t ready to leave it either. I was so ready to move on to the next book. As for Outlander: she’s totally out of her league (i.e. in another world), is seen as a witch (because she’s a doctor), and falls for an old-fashioned (and centuries-old) man who sweeps her off her feet. It just felt very similar, though as you say, not the same at all.

  • meagan

    Okay, so…not a book snob — just ridiculous. : ) I don’t need your copy, as I read it a long time ago (hmmhmm),but I will say that Peeta totally had me hooked too.

    • I know, I know. Maybe I should listen to my little sis more often… ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Anonymous

    Oh, I’m so glad you loved this one! I completely understand how you feel about books that have all that hype because I’m the exact same way. Luckily I read this one before it was widely released as a galley copy so I didn’t have any preconceptions going in. Just like you, I completely hoovered the book down and just loved it. It’s not my normal fare, but I loved the academic setting and really felt like Harkness did a fantastic job of worldbuilding and explaining the paranormal.

    One thing you might be interested to hear is that Harkness is a huge Gabaldon fan. I actually interviewed her for BookPage a while back (you can read my interview here: http://bookpage.com/interview/finding-magic-in-a-science-obsessed-world) and she was really interesting to to talk to. Because of her I started to think that perhaps I should try the Outlander books (though when I polled readers on my site, most told me to skip them!)…

    • I agree that she did a really great job of worldbuilding, and I LOVE that you told me she’s a Gabaldon fan. I am heading over to read your interview now.

      (P.S. When I read that last part, I went to call you up like we’ve talked on the phone before, to say “What? No way. Tell me everything.” Like when my best friend leaves me a voicemail…and I talk back to it.) ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Oooh, I like Jamie Frasier, too. And Mr. Darcy, duh. And Gilbert Blythe. And Fredrick Wentworth. And I’m at slkeeth at the geemail dot com. And now I want this book.

    • Ha! Sara – so glad you stopped by with your litany of literary crushes. Doesn’t every girl who reads AoGG love Gilbert Blythe? And every gay boy, too? ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Tami

    I actually had this in my hand and put it back. Wishing I hadn’t. My literary crush is bad boy Ash Farrell from The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch by Marsha Myer.

    • Ooh – I haven’t read that, but if he’s crushworthy, count me in. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Anonymous

    Well, my biggest literary crush it Mr. Darcy, obviously. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Vasilly really liked this book, too. I was ignoring it because it’s so long, but I might have to read it.

    • Tasha – put on your big girl panties and read this book. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I swear it doesn’t feel long.

  • I read this a few months ago for #TuesBookTalk and thought it was pretty good. I kind of felt like it was “if-Bella-and-Edward-had-met-when-they-were-adults,” but I liked it. (I have not read the Outlander series.) I will more than likely read the whole series now, because I really want to know what happens next.

    • Yes, I am hoping it steers clear of the sort of Edward/Bella relationship, but I thought the world Harkness created and the characters themselves had a depth missing from Twilight. For instance, the scenes at Diana’s family home were yes, similar in some ways to the Cullen home but with characters you really care about and who aren’t there simply to advance a theme or the plot.

      Check out Outlander if you get a chance. Great series.

  • Suzette from Colin MacInnes ‘Absolute Beginners’ is my biggest literary crush. As a young ‘book boy’ there were always A-Team girls out of my league, like Suzette, and later on as a poetic type at Uni there were ‘troubled’ out of my league girls who always went for bad boys for lovers and liked to be friends with guys like me. So Suzette always reminds me of my unrequited loves; just like the narrator of ‘Absolute Beginners’ and Suzette’s relationship. I read Absolute Beginners when I was a mid teenager and she was for me an archetype of the kind of girl I fell for too many times. Now older and wiser, happily married, with children I haven’t thought about her in some years, but when you mentioned literary crushes I immediately thought of Suzette and subsequently three or four ‘girl friends’ who flirted with me, befriended me, needed me and my attention, but always gave themselves to others. Ahh Suzette and unrequited love.

    I don’t usually read books in the genre of ‘A Discovery Of Witches’, but from your review it seems to have depth and an intriguing plot angle to unravel. I’ll give praise where it’s due, you are, and have been for me, a trustworthy and reliable source of good reviews and great recommendations; you haven’t failed me yet, so I’ll give this one a go. It’s about time I did some ‘risk reading’ – I don’t ever not finish a book even if I don’t like it, no matter how much of a struggle it gets – so I don’t ‘risk read’ unless someone I trust recommends a book that’s a fair way from the reasonably wide genre circles of my usual reading habits.
    Finally Happy New Year and thanks for your reviews of 2011.

    • Well since you divulged, I guess I’ll have to divulge myself. I first read Jane Eyre in 4th grade and though much of it was over my head, I grew to love Mr. Rochester with each reading and like you, fell for that archetype – the sort of tortured but witty conversationalist with enigma for miles. I’d have to say even at 30, Mr. Rochester is it for me.

      You know, I rarely read books in this genre either, but every once in a while you hit on a good one.

      And thank you for, what I consider, the highest compliment. I’m so glad my reviews aren’t just going off into the void. Happy New Year to you as well and thanks for the support!

  • Anonymous

    HaHa, I confess to crushing on Joyce Maynard, author of At Home in the World.

    • I’m loving all these confessions! Very fun. And apparently you have good taste, since old J.D. felt quite the same.

  • Hah! Fantastic review, I loved it! I’ve actually had this book since about when it came out, but I’ve hesitated to actually read it. Like you, I am put off by excessive buzz, but I should probably just suck it up and get to it!

    • I’m so glad to know there are others of us out there who avoid the hype. I always thought it was just me and felt like a contrarian. Now…get over it and go read!

  • Dorine White

    This is going to date me, but I like Paul Atreides from Dune. dorwh at aol dot com

    • Eh, stick around long enough. Our tastes are wide and varied, old and young. So glad you stopped by!

  • So just like you, I tend to avoid books that get too much attention. Aren’t we fun like that? And I probably would have kept on avoiding this, but I don’t think I can pass up the chance to discover a new Jamie-like character. Jamie is the ULTIMATE male character and hence my only real literary crush ๐Ÿ™‚


    • We ARE fun like that. ๐Ÿ™‚ Now go get you some Jamie-like action. Jamie is still better in my book, but Matthew Clairmont is a close second.

  • Yvette

    I just brought this home from the library!! Great minds and all that. After all the hoopla, I’m just hoping I like it well enough. I love your enthusiams but I skimmed your review – didn’t want to know TOO much about the book until I plunge in. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I’m curious to see what you think of it. It doesn’t seem like your typical fare (though it’s not mine either). Look forward to your review!

  • Anonymous

    I do the same thing! I get turned off by really popular books and my best friend tells me I’m a snob too! As annoying as parts of this book sound, I might pick it up when I need a light, fun read. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I’m telling you. For this type of book, I thought it was great. I love when there are books set in academia and strong, smart women. I would think it would be up your alley.

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  • Christina Kitroeff

    I LOVE Adam Wilde from Where She Went. He’s awesome – funny, real, angry, loving, protective and so talented. Such a great guy:))

    ccfioriole at gmail dot com

  • Yvette

    Sad news to relate, Jenn. I began reading this and got about oh I don’t know maybe a hundred pages in and just couldn’t take any more.

    I’m verklempt.

    I so wanted to dance on the bandwagon. I wanted to write a fun review and all. But now, pfffft! Nada.

    The thing I found very odd is that the author has all these credentials and yet the book often reminded me of nothing more than a wordy romance, kind of like an alternate universe Harlequin but with many more (unnecessary) pages. I also think a lot of what I was reading was filler. My editing gene kicked in and I immediately began cutting. Not good.

    Hard to believe this is book one of a trilogy.

    I guess it was just not meant for me.

    But I immediately found something else to read and dived right in. Never let it be said that I am verklempt for long. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Yvette – SO sorry to hear that. Yeah, it is a romance novel, but I actually really liked that about it. Hate this was a waste of your time but glad you moved on to something new so quickly.

      • Yvette

        The funny thing is that I normally like romance novels. Well, maybe I’ve just read too many of them.

        Look, no time with a book is ever wasted. There’s always something to pick up, even if it’s just learning a bit more abour yourself.

        That’s the way I look at it anyway. ๐Ÿ™‚

        I still love your enthusiasm, Jenn. I get carried away myself when I find a book I adore.

        Speaking of crushes: For me it’s been and always will be Mr. Rochester. In the more modern books, I’m crazy about Elvis Cole and Joe Pike……sigh!

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  • Sheila Bauer

    Ok, I’m really late to this party, but stumbled on this post and MUST add to it. This has been my favorite series since its debut. Professor Harkness is a genius at weaving in historical, mythological, and scientific references. Readers interested in doing the research will find that virtually every reference has some significance behind it.

    Hands down my first crush was Gilbert Blythe. These days Matthew Clairmont is my first choice. (Although, if you want to fall in lust read Moning’s series with Jericho Barrons). ADOW had been optioned by Warner Brothers and I’m praying that they cast Richard Armitage as Matthew. You should check out the crusade here: http://www.armitage4clairmont or http://www.facebook.com/Armitage4clairmont

    Great site – thank you!