BOOK REVIEW: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

History professor Deborah Harkness has leapt from the scholarly pursuits of academia to best-selling fiction author in what seems like the blink of an eye. And it is magic that has propelled her from such studious nonfiction works as The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution to her novel A Discovery of Witches, released this month and already a best seller.

A fantasy full of dreaded things that go bump in the night — and in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, one of the settings — Harkness’ book has some elements that are distinctly similar to the author’s reality as a history of science scholar.

Her protagonist, Diana Bishop, is a Yale historian doing research at Oxford’s famed library, something Harkness has done.

“I was in Oxford on a Fulbright scholarship when I did my doctoral research,” Harkness said in a recent interview. “I spent eight to 10 hours a day in the library.”

The plot’s spark is a lost manuscript that Bishop discovers at the library, something Harkness has also done.

“I found a book that had belonged to Queen Elizabeth I‘s court astrologer, John Dee. He was her astrologer and picked her coronation date, and he owned a book he prized very greatly. We’ve known it only by the title, but it had been lost. … It was in the Bodleian Library. I found it completely by accident when I was looking for something else. It was a book of spells, The Book of Soyga.”

And there the two, Bishop and Harkness, head in different, yet occasionally crossing paths.

Bishop’s find forces her to embrace her family’s past — she comes from a long line of witches — and leads her into the embrace of a vampiric love interest, Matthew Clairmont, as she dodges demons unhappy with her discovery.

For Harkness, the path was not quite so supernatural. She became a college professor (she currently teaches at the University of Southern California) and a nonfiction author, publishing her first book in 1999, John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature. But somehow that was not quite enough.

“One of the reasons I wrote [A Discovery of Witches] is I write academic books, which are very dear to a rather small academic audience. But I teach and I like sharing the history I love with other people and [the novel] became a way for me to do that.”

The actual writing of the novel had its own magical beginning.

“It was a complete accident,” Harkness explained. “I was on vacation in Mexico, and it was the rainy season, only we didn’t really know that, so I spent a lot of time in a hotel room, looking out at rain. … At the airport, I had noticed how many books there were about vampires and witches. And I started thinking about how in the 16th century a belief in witches made a certain kind of sense with their worldview. … Literally the book came from my thinking about the question: If there really are vampires and witches, what do they do for a living?

“I approached it like a historian. … The story started for me building an answer that made sense. You’d be a scientist or an investment banker. Both science and investment banking are about long-term returns.  If you’re a vampire you’d have centuries to think about things.”

Whatever her creative process, Harkness’ answer is a nearly 600-page fantasy that is drawing fans in the United States and the United Kingdom, fans who will be happy to know the book is the first in a trilogy, but Harkness is “sworn to secrecy” about the other two books.

“It’s so hard to keep my mouth shut, [but] I can tell you the second book picks up right where the first book leaves off.”

While Diane Bishop’s life is on hold until the second novel is released, Harkness’ path is rigorously defined.

“I wrote the [first] book while I was teaching full time. And I imagine myself continuing doing exactly what I’m doing, which is teaching very bright students at a wonderful university and doing my academic research. And every morning I get up and I turn on my computer and write fiction. I hope that’s what I’ll keep doing: teaching and research and writing.”

To occupy Harkness’ more curious readers in the meantime, here is an interesting tidbit from the author: Ashmole 782, the lost manuscript Bishop finds in the Bodleian Library, “is a real manuscript and the only thing we know about it is that it’s missing.”

Crossposted at the North County Times.

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26 replies
  1. Tiffany Hubbard says:

    I really loved this book. I originally bought it because I saw a review in People magazine and they recommended it. I must say that as a mother of three I haven’t been able to read a book in less than three months and I finished this book in three days. I can’t wait for the second one to come out.

  2. Melanie Sefcik says:

    I recently bought a Nook color and this is the first book I bought for it. I read a review about the book in my Better Homes and Garden magazine. I could not put the book down. A great book to me is one that has me thinking about the characters while I’m at work, A Discovery of Witches is one of those books. I am so excited to know that there is more to come.

  3. MrsB says:

    “If there really are vampires and witches, what do they do for a living?”

    Well, some of us witches are housewives. I know, boring, right?

  4. Crystal says:

    “If there really are vampires and witches, what do they do for a living?”

    I’m just your average, every day, insurance agent. Nothing special 🙂

  5. Kristan Cannon says:

    It was a great book.

    However, there are witches out there, as it is also a very real faith with rights like any other. They aren’t that different as people. They have jobs and careers, family and everyday issues like the rest of us.

    The fictional, fantastical aspect of a witch is like the fantastical take on what a priest does. Movies like to portray priests with the ability to call down miracles. Same take on witchcraft, only for some reason, people think that’s the truth of Witches and any who claim they are a witch as crackpots, ignoring the faith, different but no less real or valid, and simply seeing the fictional claim.

    The point is, while this is a great work of fiction and is a wonderful read, please keep in mind there are real witches out there, like there are real priests and other people of faith. Don’t ask “if” they exist like they don’t because they do. That’s like asking if a Roman Catholic exists.

  6. Geena says:

    Heyyy, I know an accidental vampire (energy sucker) but I don’t think she realizes she is one. She doesn’t know they exist, as far as I am aware.

    As for witches, how would you define witch? I am not wiccan but I use intent to manifest things and some people wouldd call that magick/spellcasting.

    I work in advertising (so does the unofficial vampire)

    Its like Madmen meets Twilight lol

  7. Catherine says:

    Goodness I’ve been a practicing witch since the 70s. I’ve also been a banker, a loan officer, a wife, a mom, and an active volunteer. I understand the temptation to throw the term in with all the other fictional creatures but please, we’re real and there are a lot of us out there.

  8. Osiris says:

    “If there really are vampires and witches, what do they do for a living?”

    I’m an Air Traffic Control student & bartender. Its amazing how often you meet one of us and never realize it!

  9. Starr says:

    I’m a college student now. I have been a taxi driver, a customer service representative, and have worked at a gas station and fast food. I’ve been a witch since I was 11, so I’ve been a witch for 16 years.

  10. Mystere says:

    I am both a vampyre (psychic/psionic) and a witch and Pagan. I’m a college student studying graphic design with plans to go into book design. We’re generally pretty normal.

    Geena, “witch” can be used to describe someone who uses magic in their lives. Some wiccans and such use the term as a religious designator, but few Pagans that dont practice magic use the term.

  11. Cynn says:

    another witch here….i’m a housekeeper at a university. my witchy friends consist of a special needs facility CEO, a chemistry professor, an ex-nun, a ecological field tester, a copy person at a PC outlet, a card reader/glass blower/housewife, 2 college students….post grad, an academic scholar/sports guru in high school, a convenience store clerk, a public assistance caseworker, and a religion instructor at a UU church.

  12. Amy says:

    My family is Wiccan. I’m an Office Manager and my husband is a Outside Sales Rep. In our extended family, we have college lecturers, nannies, sales reps, accountants, insurance reps, hair dressers, operations managers, web designers, mechanics, and a few SAHM.

  13. Geena says:

    @ Jael : Witches must make great nurses, having that extra sense helps a lot with patient care. I’m learning energy healing and I love it. Check out my page if you’re interested in hearing more.

    I guess “witches” can make great healers too =)

  14. Leathra says:

    I currently work at a debt-collection agency (trying to get into entertainment). I have been a witch for 8 years. I know several others all in different fields(security, landscaping, etc.) And I know a vampire who is a college student.