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Book Review: A Discovery of Witches

In a time when the thirst for vampire stories and wizard tales has captivated millions of people across the globe, Deborah Harkness’ first novel A Discovery of Witches has proved to be a true breath of fresh air and an intellectual delight. Unlike many of the magically-themed novels of our time, Witches goes above and beyond the restraints of fiction. Harkness – a professor of European history and the history of science at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles – brings a wealth of education and scholarly experience to her endeavors as a novelist. 

Witches is the first of three books that Harkness has named the “All Souls Trilogy”. The story begins in Oxford, England – home to the famous Oxford University. Dr. Diana Bishop, the novel’s main protagonist, is a scholar and descendant in a very long line of witches. While she is there conducting research, she unearths a 15th century alchemical manuscript that will prove to completely upend her life and her choice to opt-out of the magical community to which she naturally belongs. She can no longer avoid the reality of her existence and her powers, especially now that she has accidentally summoned such an important document that all of her magical kin in Oxford wish to get their hands on. 

Dr. Bishop is just one of many highly interesting people in the book. Harkness’ creation of such a rich group of characters is something that makes this enchanting story unique. Anyone who has ever read other novels about witches, vampires, and daemons will most likely find similar traits in the characters of Witches. However, these creatures are far from one-dimensional or predictable; they have been crafted through the combination of Harkness’ brilliant imagination and academic knowledge. The novel’s second protagonist is a vampire who is so much more than a typical blood-thirsty nocturnal creature. Professor Matthew Clairmont was born in the year 500 A.D. and reborn as a vampire in 537. He is a highly refined individual, and probably the most sophisticated vampire in fictional existence; he has wined and dined with historical philosophers and exchanged ideas with Charles Darwin. Harkness’ choice to design a character that has existed for over 1,500 years allowed her the space to fill this novel with many fascinating and highly accurate historical references. 

Throughout this story, Harkness takes her readers on a journey through time, culture, and the wide world of academia. Her ability to weave the elements of fiction with historical facts makes reading this book both an educational and pleasurable experience. A Discovery of Witches is food for the soul, the brain, and great fun for the child inside us all that is a firm believer in magic.

– Morgan Dysinger

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