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A Discovery of Witches, a novel by Deborah Harkness

Diana Bishop is a witch, descended from Salem witches. But after her parents’ violent death in Africa, she puts off magic and chooses to live as a human. Raised by her aunt Sarah, she is a precocious, hardworking student, and while still in her early twenties earns a Ph.D, specializing in the history of alchemy.

She spends a summer at Oxford University, requesting manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, and one book exhibits some strange behaviors. Other non-human creatures flock to the library when they learn that she, an American witch, has had some magical interaction with it. One of the creatures is the 1500-year-old vampire, Matthew Clairmont.

Harkness’s story is full of detail, sensual, historical, and scientific. Descriptions of meals, wines, tactile pleasures, and symptoms of a witch’s extraordinary perceptions draw the reader into Diana’s reality. Her plot is familiar: an impressive stranger appears, tells a young woman she is in danger, and that he can protect her. This takes her from her comfortable life as an academic into a world of creatures whose politics haven’t progressed much past the dark ages. It is a world little noticed by ordinary humans, yet full of endemic warfare; one in which danger, adventure, violence, and narrow escapes are almost daily occurrences. In this story, the conflict involves the mysterious manuscript’s power, and the old treaties that kept vampires, witches, and daemons in their separate societies. The non-human creatures are in decline. Birthrates for witches and daemons are dropping, and vampire blood is losing its power to turn humans. The old boundaries are strained by the biological imperative to evolve, felt as interspecies love and resisted as hate. In the hands of a magical creature, the manuscript may reveal information regarding the past and future upon which their survival depends.

What engages the reader is the belated emergence of the power Diana has suppressed for most of her life. She’s smart, fit, and capable, but she has some catching up to do. Her vampire protector is accustomed to command. Her struggle with accepting his patronage—and love—reflects the dilemma many young women face in their desire to create their own destinies and also respond to the sweet call of settled family life, and the shelter a strong man with resources can provide.

Harkness offers a number of refreshing strategies. Not much in the way of torrid love scenes, but rather the prosaic matter of coming to know and trust another person, and seeing their characters revealed by their choices and actions.

Will you love this book? The chances are good. There is certainly a great deal to like, and time spent with it rewards those who love words.

Viking Press, available in hardcover, Adobe Reader, ePub eBook, Kindle, and audiobook.

—Review by @Luna_Silverleaf

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