Wickedly popular, the All Souls Trilogy has been bewitching readers since 2011. Penned by Deborah Harkness, a professor of history at the University of Southern California, this paranormal/urban fantasy series begins with A Discovery of Witches. It won the SCIBA award for fiction and was a GoodReads Choice Award nominee for Best Paranormal Fantasy in 2011. After being harped upon from many of my bookworm friends about this series, I went ahead and bought the entire set, ready for the ride. Hardcover | Viking Penguin | February, 2011 | 579 pp
Diana Bishop is a tenured professor of alchemical history at Oxford University. She’s young to have procured a tenured position but she’s absolutely brilliant, naturally. She’s also a witch although she tries very, very hard not to be. She’s the descendant of two very strong witch-family lines. Her mother was a Bishop and her father was a Proctor. Sound familiar? Yes, she’s an American witch with direct ties to the Salem Witch Trials. Diana’s parents were killed while on a trip to Africa when she was just a child and ever since, Diana has blamed their deaths on witchcraft. So, she put aside all of her magical abilities. She also wanted to rise in academia on her own accord, with no help from her innate powers.
While in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, researching for her role as an upcoming keynote speaker, Diana comes across an enchanted book on alchemy. She opens the book, breaking the enchantment that had been on it for centuries. Although she immediately recognizes that it’s a palimpsest with hidden properties, she quickly glances over it and returns the book, wanting nothing to do with bewitched manuscripts. But the broken enchantment has unexpectedly called upon other creatures to come looking.
In Diana’s world, there are humans, witches, vampires, and daemons. The latter three can identify one another quite easily, but the humans have no clue. Back at the library the next day, there are creatures about. The library is suddenly crawling with them and Diana has no idea why. But it does seem like all eyes are on her. When she meets a formidable vampire named Matthew Clairmont, her first instinct is to run. Cornered by Matthew, she has no choice but to speak with him. She also speaks with witches and daemons, learning from everyone that their sudden presence is because of that book she found.
The witches and daemons lightly threaten her, but it is the vampire Matthew, a professor of molecular biology, who explains why everyone (including himself) wants the book. They all have different theories about what insight the book contains, but they all can agree that it has something to do with their history. All creature factions lay claim on the lost manuscript, but Diana cannot figure out how to call it back.
What’s strange to Diana is that Matthew, a vampire – natural enemy to the witch, begins to protect her at the library. They develop a kinship, a relationship that is forbidden among the creatures. Vampires and witches should not mingle. When it’s clear that Diana’s life is on the line, Matthew becomes her first line of defense. It’s more than his desire for the book – Matthew has fallen in love. And when he wants something, he’ll kill for it.
For me, there’s a whole lot of good, and a whole lot of bad. I was extremely excited about this series and I was convinced that I would love it. I’m a huge fan of speculative fiction and I can handle a little immersed romance. Unfortunately, I had a very difficult time enjoying this novel – I experienced far too many eye rolls. Regardless, I’m still going to read the series through. I have found fault before with a first book, only to become a die-hard fan by the end of the last book.
Where to begin? Yes – Diana. She is the fated/reluctant protagonist whom I wanted to strangle. First, she wants nothing to do with her powers and, excuse me but – who in their right mind wouldn’t want the ability to do just about anything at the twitch of a nose? Come on. She is way too altruistic for my tastes. If I thought witchcraft was responsible for the death of my parents, I would be working on those abilities nonstop to bring pain to those responsible. Anyone would. Second, she is always tired, always sleeping. On every other page she describes how completely exhausted she’s been from the day’s events and it’s just not like her. I think our protagonist slept through half the novel. I want a strong female protagonist but Diana is the complete opposite – a quasi-narcoleptic who denies her own God-like power. I was aggravated! Third – the Twilight similarities. Matthew Clairmont IS Edward Cullen, just a bit older. He’s a sixth century-born vampire with billions of dollars, constant identity changes, and is super hot – naturally falling for the warmblood and with the intense desire to protect her at all costs – yet he won’t engage in any serious intimacy with her. And, as in Twilight, the ‘Congregation’ is coming for them all because of their dating transgressions. Didn’t I read this already? Fourth, the sexism masked as romance made me gag.
Fifth, (and this is a biggie, deserving of its own paragraph) I didn’t appreciate the ties to the people who were heinously murdered during the Salem Witch Trials – I actually found it hugely offensive. Innocent people lost their lives in this hysteria, and I grew up in Danvers, Massachusetts – the original Salem Village – where these innocent people were hung. To take the names of real people who were murdered for crimes of witchcraft and Satanism, a crime they were completely innocent of, and make a story to contradict their innocence – it was offensive. A lot of books do this. They take advantage of the Salem Witch Trials for this purpose and it irritates me. I’m all for fantasy, but these people and their families suffered. There’s no need to capitalize on that, even several centuries down the road.
Honestly, I’m not much of a romance reader, therefore many of my issues simply stem from personal preference. I’ll deal with romance on a small scale; I even ‘like it’ when it’s well done. But this was a bit too much sap and sugar for me. Any romance reader would be absolutely thrilled, I imagine.
The ‘good’ was more than good – it was phenomenal. Naturally, a professor of history provides us with an incredibly intelligent read with vivid insights into medieval alchemy and the occult, historical figures of the arts and science, and full descriptions of archaeological objects of interest. While Diana is a historian and Matthew has been around since the sixth century, their conversations are a learning piece in their own right, as if the author stopped the story line for an informative, fun, and completely fascinating lecture on history, giving it a magical twist. Lots of well-known historical figures end up playing the part of vampire, witch, or daemon.
What’s also a positive is that the author doesn’t just pit our two fated lovers against the world. There are friends and family who come to help them from all cast of creatures. Diana’s aunts – witches, Matthew’s family – vampires, and even some friendly daemons. And I’ve always loved it when the characters you least expect to be helpful turn out to be the ones you root for. I’m suddenly reminded of The Marquis de Carabas in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, or the Jackal in Julie Kagawa’s The Immortal Rules. Matthew himself reminds me of these characters in a less intense way.
A Discovery of Witches is an intelligent paranormal read that will work for some, but not all. The next book seems to call for some time traveling, and looks to delve into historical fiction which fits the background of the author. Since I bought all of the books, I’ll continue my journey and hope for the best.
A Discovery of Witches
by Deborah Harkness