A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

After reading Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, I felt disillusioned about the vampire-romance plot. After engaging in the Edward Cullen fever-pitch, I realized he was actually a controlling, misogynist jerk and I lost interest in the supernatural romance genre overall.

So, I’m not sure why I decided to pick up a copy of A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. In part, I think, the setting of Oxford appealed to me. I studied abroad there during the summer of 2010 as a student at Elmhurst College. I enjoyed reading about the rowers on the Thames, cobbled streets, Christ Church’s spires, and the reverent silence of All Souls. The start of the book begins in the woody interior of the majestic Bodleian Library, which I’m sure goes without saying, was my favorite site to visit.

Living my best life in Oxford (I have a pink scarf on), near the Bodleian library, with my professors and classmates, June 2010

The smell of the library always lifted my spirits — that peculiar combination of old stone, dust, woodworm, and paper made properly from rags.

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I identify with the protagonist, Diana Bishop, too. Diana is a scholar who loves research and study (I’m a nerd, okay? And I’m not even sorry about it). She is a top figure in her field of the history of science, and I enjoyed reading about a strong, independent woman in academics. 

I remained skeptical about this whole supernatural element throughout the first third of the book. Diana, though a practical scholar, is also a witch. She’s not just any witch, either; she’s a Bishop, a descendent of Bridget Bishop, the first woman to die in the Salem witch trials.

This irritated me a little, because Bridget Bishop was a real person who died after the powers-that-be of Salem accused her and convicted her of witchcraft. The book assumes she was, in fact, guilty of this, despite throwing shade at those who acted against witchcraft.

Nonetheless, Diana’s ancestry (her father was a descendent of John Proctor, another victim of the Salem trials, and the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible) makes her quite powerful, indeed. However, because of the tragic death of her parents, Diana tries to bury the witch aspects of her identity. Her aunt Sarah and Sarah’s partner, Emily, attempt to encourage Diana to embrace her heritage, but Diana remains stubborn about not using her powers.

But her power finds her in the form of an elder text she uses in her research on alchemy. This sets off a chain of events that brings an old-soul vampire, Matthew Clairmont, into Diana’s life. At first, Matthew represents danger for Diana as all supernatural beings in Harkness’s universe — witches, vampires, and daemons — align themselves along deep fractures in partnership.

Nevertheless, Matthew’s persistence in learning about Diana, and her undeniable attraction to him, continuously puts them in situations together, which leads to a passionate romance.

Cue my rather dramatic eye-roll. I was not in the mood for another vampire romance in which the male vampire simply can’t rein in his controlling nature and overprotective tendencies because of his inherent vampire-ness. It’s boring to watch the male love interest control an otherwise intriguing female protagonist.

However, I think Harkness must feel the same way about this vampire trope because Matthew, despite feeling the urge to control, protect, and ultimately possess Diana, does control his urges. He finds it in himself to allow her to be herself, which ultimately leads to Diana finding her power as a witch in her own right and acting as Matthew’s savior, instead of the other way around.

Ultimately, I appreciate how this book turns the vampire-romance story on its head and makes room for a strong, intelligent, capable female protagonist. It’s a far more interesting read. I plan on reading the next book in the trilogy, The Book of Life.

Witches are very good at protecting themselves, I’ve found, with a little effort and a drop of courage.

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After reading the book, I enjoyed the television adaptation of it on the Sundance app (a subscription through Amazon). The show features Teresa Palmer (“Hacksaw Ridge”) as Diana Matthew Goode (“Downton Abbey”) as Matthew, and Alex Kingston (“Dr. Who”) as Aunt Sarah. There is a wealth of other terrific actors on board; the Oxford scenes are actually filmed in Oxford, which is a nice treat for those who love the city, and the plot remains mostly faithful to the book. The show is optioned for a second season, which presumably will follow the plot of The Book of Life.

I guess I better keep reading! This book makes it feel good to return to the supernatural romance genre, so why not?

Trigger Warnings: blood, gore, graphic injuries; bullying (blackmail); death (murder); loss of a loved one (death of a parent, sibling); medical stuff; mind control; needles; stalking

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