three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
user_rating: 
0

A-A Discovery of WitchesDeborah Harkness is a history professor at the University of Southern California. She is the author of several nonfiction works, including The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (2007). This is her fiction debut, the first in a planned All Souls Trilogy.

The Story: Diana Bishop, a Yale professor, is descended from a powerful line of Salem, Massachusetts, witches. She has denied her magical heritage for years, choosing instead to live a life grounded in science and research. But in Oxford's famed Bodleian Library, she stumbles upon an ancient book of alchemy that may unlock the secret to immortality. The discovery not only leads Diana into the arms of centuries-old vampire Matthew Clairmont but also brings the untested witch to the attention of a deadly group of supernatural beings called "The Congregation."
Viking. 592 pages. $28.95. ISBN: 9780670022410

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"With the delightfully well-crafted and enchantingly imaginative A Discovery of Witches, nonfiction author Harkness deftly makes the leap into fiction. ... [T]he book simply exudes Harkness' unmistakable love of history in all its fascinating detail." John Williford

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"Adults entranced by the kiddie witches and wizards in the Harry Potter series and the teen vampires in the Twilight Saga--you've earned this grown-up tale." Carol Memmott

Entertainment Weekly 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] thoroughly grown-up novel packed with gorgeous historical detail. ... Harkness writes with thrilling gusto about the magical world." Karen Valby

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]hough the quality of Discovery's prose remains no more than clear and serviceable, its erudite references to the leather-bound boards of incunabulae and secret ingredients in medieval inks make it a welcome relief. Using such elegant touches Harkness imbues Bishop and Clairmont's romantic adventure with an odd charm, a sweet joy in the life of the mind." Nisi Shawl

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"[A] Dan-Brown-worthy blend of horror-movie kitsch, New Age cheesiness, and romance-novel saccharine. ... Harkness succeeds for more than half the novel in raising the stakes, but in the second half the narrative runs dry of both blood and magic." Chuck Leddy

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3 of 5 Stars
"[T]he book contains too many details, too often repeated. ... The pacing would have improved if Harkness had better trusted her readers' imaginations." Sarah Willis

Critical Summary

Most reviewers thoroughly enjoyed their immersion in Harkness's rich, new world, calling it pure, escapist fun. They also described the fiction debut as magic lit for the adult crowd: steamy romantic scenes and unapologetic gore abound within the book's nearly 600 pages. A few critics flagged some draggy elements, and more than one thought that the plot stalled halfway through before picking up again. Overall, the book's appeal should cross the genres, thrilling fantasy, romance, and historical fiction buffs alike. A second installment is planned for 2012.