When A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness first came out with a huge PR push, I deliberately stayed away. I am not a big fan of paranormal romance, but, one night after class, Joyce told me she had just finished listening to this book, and despite the paranormal romance angle, she thought I would enjoy the literary mystery in the book.
So, like anyone who strives to practice what they preach, I took the suggestion of a Readers' Advisor who understands my reading tastes and took the plunge, albeit skeptically. Since the book is almost 600 pages, the audio was a good move to counterbalance my reluctance. And I am happy to report that I liked the book, maybe even enough to try the second installment.
I should mention that A Discovery of Witches is the first in a planned trilogy. This first installment gets the story revved up and ready to take off, and then leaves you at the point of liftoff. On its own, it is an interesting story, but if you don't like waiting for part 2, wait to read this novel.
The plot and the appeal are extremely intertwined here. The basic story is that Diana Bishop, an accomplished alchemy scholar and well pedigreed witch who has been trying to ignore her magic all of her life, gets swept up in a mystery surrounding a rare alchemical text which has been hidden by a spell for hundreds of years. When Diana is able to call up the manuscript in the Oxford library, she unwillingly starts a war in the realm of creatures (vampires, witches, and demons).
Assisting Diana from the start (and providing the romance angle) is 1,500 year old vampire, Matthew Clairmont. Matthew is a medical researcher who has been collecting the DNA of creatures. Over the course of the novel they slowly piece together what they are up against and assemble a team to try to find out why this manuscript is causing so much of a ruckus.
The appeal here is wide. People who like paranormal romance and don't mind a slightly more serious tone would love this novel. The plot is intricate, the pacing steady, and the characters extremely well rounded. Personally, I really enjoyed the alchemy and research angle. I also liked the world Harkness has created. Her vampires, witches, and demons all get along in a cold war type atmosphere. The details into their existences, needs, and powers are all very interesting. For example, her vampires can be out at all times of day, but she explains why humans think they can only be out at night.
Diana's coming-of-age as a witch is also important here. As is the mystery surrounding the book. There are entire sections in which nothing but alchemistry, Darwin, and/or the Bible are discussed at length. Key moments in history also come up frequently, both European and American. These are all points at which I was most engaged by the book.
The romance is also in the forefront quite a bit, which happened to be the points in which I lost interest, but it will be the reason why others love this book. I have also seen the romance angel described as steamy, but I would have to disagree. (They haven't even consummated their marriage yet by then end of this first book)
In terms of tone, while fun is had here, the overall tone is fairly serious. They are on a quest which will put people in danger, but it must be done.
Overall I think there is a nice balance here of something for everyone. I could see myself suggesting this book to a wide range of readers. And for a RA librarian, there is no higher praise. So, while if you asked my personal opinion I would say this book was okay, as a librarian, it had me jumping for joy.
Three Words That Describe This Book: paranormal romance, scholars and research, intricately plotted
Readalikes: A Discovery of Witches is a great options for fans of Sookie Stackhouse. While Charlaine Harris' novels have a more campy and tongue-in-cheek tone, the range of paranormal characters, solving mysteries, and moving within the regular world are all similar. A huge range of readers enjoy the Sookie novels; in fact, last year I produced this popular list of Sookie Stackhouse readalikes based on what part of Harris' series you most enjoy. Click here to access it on The Browser's Corner or here for the RA for All version.
Other novels I would suggest to readers who enjoyed A Discovery of Witches are The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (female researcher, vampires, intricately plotted), The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon (paranormal romance, time travel, series), The Pink Carnation series by Lauren Willig (historical mystery, female finding a book), and the Kushiel novels by Jacqueline Carey (romantic fantasy involving magic).
Books I have written about which I also think would be a good match here are Casting Spells by Barbara Bretton (range of supernatural characters, romance) and Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott (alchemy, female researcher, serious). The links are to my reviews which are also a good source of further readalike options.
The quest aspect is similar in tone and scope to The Lord of the Rings. Both stories share the theme of varied creatures coming together, despite years of fighting against one and other, in order to do what is right.
Finally for those whose interest in alchemy was piqued try, The Last Sorcerers: The Path from Alchemy to the Periodic Table by Richard Morris.
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