A Discovery of Witches (All Souls #1) by Deborah Harkness

One of the rules I have (that used to be hard and fast but am now calling into question) is to, when at all possible, read a series in order. So if a publicist pitches me on a new book that is part of a series, I generally want to go back and read the earlier book(s).  The problem is twofold: 1) this is extra reading added to an already full slate 2) what if you don’t like the first book?

Which brings me to A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy) by Deborah Harkness.  I decided to read the first book in this series in order to read the recently released Shadow of Night.  Sounds like a plan, right?  A few problems, however, began to creep up.  First, I didn’t get around to reading the first book quite as quickly as I had planned. Second, I seem to have failed to notice that both books are seriously long (like nearly 600 pages long). Third, they lean a little heavier on the romance side than I anticipated.

What am I talking about? Fine, read the publishers blurb yourself:

A richly inventive novel about a centuries-old vampire, a spellbound witch, and the mysterious manuscript that draws them together.

Deep in the stacks of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, young scholar Diana Bishop unwittingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript in the course of her research. Descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana wants nothing to do with sorcery; so after a furtive glance and a few notes, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery sets a fantastical underworld stirring, and a horde of daemons, witches, and vampires soon descends upon the library. Diana has stumbled upon a coveted treasure lost for centuries-and she is the only creature who can break its spell.

Debut novelist Deborah Harkness has crafted a mesmerizing and addictive read, equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense. Diana is a bold heroine who meets her equal in vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont, and gradually warms up to him as their alliance deepens into an intimacy that violates age-old taboos. This smart, sophisticated story harks back to the novels of Anne Rice, but it is as contemporary and sensual as the Twilightseries-with an extra serving of historical realism.

That last sentence should have been the tipoff … but in my defense I was focused on the first sentence.

Anyways, all of this is not to say I didn’t enjoy reading the book, and that I am not tempted to power through and read the second tome, just that it was an interesting experience.  I would say that if you enjoy paranormal romance this series is a must read. If you don’t enjoy long reads with lots of descriptions and a healthy dose of romance then you might be disappointed or tempted to bail out early.

I enjoyed many elements of the story.  The concept of a community of creatures (witches, vampires, daemons) living secretly amongst humans has a lot of potential.  The forbidden romance between witch and vampire does as well.  And the connections between ancient manuscripts, alchemy and the history of these creatures provides a great background to the story.

And clearly, Harkness has done a lot of research.  The love of details and history comes through very clearly.  But at some point it begins to drag the story down.  This may sound weird but it made me think of the later Harry Potter books but a little more for adult women. It is so full of details and descriptions that the plot moves at a snails pace at times; instead of teenage angst you get forbidden love.

And as noted above, there is more of the romance side to this story than I would prefer.  The detailed descriptions of every embrace and kiss etc, etc. was a bit much.  Just not my style.  But obviously if you enjoy those details and the romance aspect then you will enjoy plunging into the world and all the descriptions Harkness offers.

Lastly, the plot is rather serpentine. The descriptions and the relationships take up so much space that the plot is lost only to be picked up again when climatic action intrudes. For long stretches nothing really happens and then suddenly tension and violence appear only to fade away again.  For example, when Diana and Matthew are at the house in America, seemingly out of nowhere comes this action sequence that sends the tention sky high.  At this point you really begin to wonder where the story is headed and if an epic plot twist just happened.  You rush to find out what is going to happen.  But then the story once again slows down and muddles along until the ending sets you up for the sequel.

This is an example at the end but it happens throughout the book; drawn-out descriptions and relationship building interrupted by sudden action.  For me it felt like some editing and strategic pruning could have made this a much tighter and more powerful read.

But perhaps I am just reading the wrong genre.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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