Friday, April 5, 2013

A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy #1), by Deborah Harkness (author), Jennifer Ikeda (narrator)

Penguin Audio, ISBN 9780142429112, February 2011

Diana Bishop is an historian doing research on alchemy and the history of science in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. She is also, much to her regret, a witch, a descendant of Bridget Bishop, the first person to be hanged as a witch during the Salem witch trials. Traumatized by the deaths of her parents in Nigeria when she was a young child, she (mostly) avoids using her powers, has never learned to cast spells or make potions, and, on a major Wiccan holiday, stays at the Bodleian continuing to work, instead of dining and celebrating with her fellow witches.

It's on that evening, nearly alone in the library, that Diana calls up an alchemical manuscript, Ashmole 782, to check it against other references.

Ashmole 782 is bewitched, and she almost unconsciously uses magic just to open it. First she notices that the illustrations are all wrong, different in sometimes subtle but always significant ways from conventional alchemical figures. The text is also magically hidden, partly visible only when the light strikes the page at exactly the right angle.

Diana wants nothing to do with an enchanted manuscript, and she sends it back.

Her troubles are just beginning. She quickly meets a vampire, Matthew Clairmont, a geneticist and medical doctor who is unaccountably interested in that very manuscript. So are her fellow witches. So are demons who start showing up everywhere. No one believes she just sent the manuscript back, or that she has no idea how she called it up (previous requests have always come back as "missing.") As more and more magical creatures close in on her, and some of them become distinctly threatening, Diana finds that Matthew Clairmont is her only, if somewhat untrustworthy, ally.

Harkness has done something genuinely interesting with vampires, something I've stopped expecting since the untimely death of Octavia Butler. Matthew is a strong and interesting character, smart, honorable, temperamental, and with an equally interesting family. Diana Bishop is naive, but smart and strong, and not inclined either to give in to those threatening her, or to sit back and be the passive damsel in distress while Matthew rescues her. What they have is a well-written, interesting, satisfying relationship. Diana's own family is also interesting--lots of strong, intelligent, and very individual female characters in this book.

It is the first volume of a trilogy, and while there's a reasonably satisfying interim ending, this is not the complete story, so be warned. The second volume is out now, but not the third, and the third has no date set yet.

Nevertheless, an excellent book. Recommended.

Book trailer:


I borrowed this book from a friend.