It begins with absence and desire.
It begins with blood and fear.
It begins with a discovery of witches.
Both the book and the TV series A Discovery of Witches begin with this short poem, the key to the mystery that the All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness, spends solving. A Discovery of Witches is the first book in the urban fantasy series, which has now expanded beyond the original trilogy to include a fourth book. According to Deborah Harkness, several more installments, focusing on other characters and mysteries, are on the way.
A Discovery of Witches tells the story of Diana Bishop, a witch from a family of powerful witches in a world where there are three types of humanoid magical creatures: witches, vampires and demons. The creatures live secretly among humans, blending into normal human society. Under normal circumstances, members of each species spend time only with others of their own species. Intermarriage is strictly forbidden and even interspecies friendships are severely frowned upon.
Diana Bishop has always had difficulty wielding her magic. She turned away from the magical world almost completely after her parents died tragically when she was a child. She was raised in upstate NY by her mother’s sister, Sarah, and Sarah’s partner, Em. As an adult, she’s become a historian who is on the faculty and studies alchemy in the US at Yale and in the UK at Oxford. She sees herself as a non-magical person, but it overflows out of her at times when something unexpected happens, even though she is untrained in its use.
In the course of her research into alchemy at Oxford, Diana requests a rare book, Ashmole 782, from Bodleian Library. The book and Diana react strangely to each other when she opens it. Diana realizes that it’s a magical item, making her anxious. She notices that a few pages are missing and it has an odd smell. As Diana examines the book, she discovers that it’s an enchanted palimpsest: There is another entire book written underneath the visible writing. The printing of the enchanted book within the book moves and fades in and out as she tries to read it, as if it’s purposely hidden. The visible book is also unusual, with mistakes and oddities in what should be a standard alchemical format.
Since she doesn’t want to publicly call attention to herself as a creature or to an enchanted item in her research, Diana decides to reshelve the book for the moment. When the book is returned to the stacks, it sends a magical shockwave through the library and its vicinity that’s felt by all of the magical creatures in the area. Diana’s friend and fellow witch, Gillian Chamberlain, is with her in the library and witnesses what happened, ensuring that Diana’s period of quiet anonymity is over.
From there, Diana necessarily becomes deeply involved in the world of magic and her fellow creatures as she tries to understand the extremely valuable book she’s accidentally discovered, which has been lost for centuries. In fact, the book is so valuable that creatures are willing to kill or kidnap each other for it. They soon figure out that the book is once again lost, so all eyes are trained on Diana as the only link to this treasure.
Enter Matthew Clairmont, a 1500 year old vampire and biochemistry researcher at Oxford. He and his vampire team are researching why all 3 species of creatures are becoming less viable in various ways. Since he’s been a scientist and alchemist for centuries, he’s long been interested in Ashmole 782 and its rumored mysteries, but he hasn’t been able to find it. Initially, he approaches Diana to discuss her experience with the book and where the book is now.
Things between them quickly escalate, as other creatures are more forceful in their demands for the book and for more knowledge about Diana herself. While Matthew is protecting her from the rest of the creature world, she becomes involved in Matthew’s research and they fall in love.
Season 1 and book 1 spend significant time on world and character building, and it is a glorious world. Deborah Harkness is a respected academic historian of science, medicine, alchemy, magic and the occult, so she is particularly accurate with her historical references, and there are many. The first book sweeps through several countries and touches on several time periods. As the series continues, it’s fair to say it takes place on an epic scale.
But at the same time, the action is always focused on the characters we know and love, rather than getting caught up in grand, distant historical events. By keeping the scale intimate, even when she includes real life historical figures, Harkness keeps the story warm and relatable no matter where or when it goes. She never gets so carried away with historical details or epic events that she forgets that telling her story should be her first priority.
But she also has a keen eye for detail and a deft hand with painting a word picture to set the scene so that the reader feels like they’re in the setting. Indeed, like JK Rowling, many of her settings become characters themselves, occasionally in the actual, not metaphorical sense! Her characters also stand out as real people, and though this series has a large cast, they are all distinctly drawn.
A Discovery of Witches was Harkness’ first book, and plot is the area where I feel it shows. The plotting is somewhat uneven and gets bogged down occasionally by the amount of detail that needs to be relayed for world building purposes. Diana is somewhat swoony towards Matthew for my tastes, and he starts out as the typical domineering male vampire. These are such common tropes as to be cliche for a vampire-humanish couple.
If you’re looking for a light, quick read, this isn’t it. I would put it in the moderately dense category. But Harkness has improved the storytelling side of her writing with each novel, and even by the end of A Discovery of Witches the characters are growing beyond any tropes they started in. To me, it was worth the frustrations of reading a first time writer to enjoy her world building.
(And far be it from me, the queen of the extra-long recap, to criticize someone for wordiness!)
Season 1 of the TV series is also focused on detail and world building, though it spends much less time on the Ashmole 782 mystery than the novel does. As a result, Diana and Matthew’s relationship is emphasized more, though not because scenes are added that aren’t in the book. There are added scenes of the machinations by the creatures’ government, called the Congregation, plotting by the villainous creatures, and a few characters are brought in a little earlier than in the book. For the most part, these are scenes that fill in events that the author left out of the book, but logically you know must have happened.
The TV series has already been renewed for seasons 2 and 3. The first season of the TV series followed book 1 closely and the following seasons are expected to continue to portray the rest of the trilogy closely as well. In season 1, I missed the emphasis on alchemy and Ashmole 782 that there was in the book. I can see where the TV producers might have thought that material would fit better in season 2, so I’m hoping some of it will still work its way into the show.
In season 1 some important details that are essential to understanding the season and the series as a whole either go by very quickly or aren’t fully explained. I’ve watched it all the way through two separate times, with two different people who hadn’t read the books, and both times I had to stop multiple times to go back and explain details they’d missed in previous episodes that were important to understanding the story. It’s just not enough to have a character mumble key information once, in a scene with other things going on at the same time, in a story this dense.
In season 2 the writers need to do a better job of making sure crucial information is presented and highlighted clearly. This was a problem with the Harry Potter films as well, and by the 5th film, anyone I knew who hadn’t already read the books had to do so in order to understand what was going on. If the screen versions are meant to stand alone, there’s no excuse for botching the presentation of information which viewers need to understand the story, when you already have future installments telling you what’s important.
So for now, I have to recommend that when you watch the series, you either also read the books or you watch with someone who’s read them. The good news is, the books and the TV series are both great and should be enjoyed by fans of urban fantasy and other supernatural genres. They are romantic but not overly heavy on the romance and contain horror elements, but I wouldn’t put them in that genre. They are for fans who like a supernatural story with a little bit of everything, including romance, history, science, action, adventure, science fiction, horror, political intrigue- you name it.
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