Review – A Discovery of Witches

Witches, vampires, love, alchemy…it’s got everything. Review of A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (4.5/5)

A Discovery of Witches was published February 8, 2011 by Penguin Books. I am upset that I went through 5 years of this book being out in the world and did not read it until now. I’d never even heard of it until this year! If you already read this and enjoyed it, I recommend the River of No Return by Bee Ridgway – there’s a similarity of tone.

I spent an entire Sunday reading this and finished it on Monday, September 19, 2016.

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The blurb does not do this book justice. I immediately loved the cover, but was turned off by the summary. I didn’t buy it when I saw it in the store, but decided to check it out of the library.

Oh my, was I in for a treat.

A Discovery of Witches is the blend of so much of the best stuff in modern fantasy; bear with me because every time I tried to figure out how to summarize this excellent novel it came out sounding like Twilight. Only its a vampire/witch love story. With adults. And depth of emotion. And historical context and obscure references. It’s a novel that takes the cliche of being the Chosen One and makes it interesting again.

Our heroine is Dr. Diana Bishop – the last of the Bishop witches – who spent her life denying and strangling her own magic after the death of her parents as a child. Diana is a science historian with a focus on alchemy; the medieval blend of science and magic that experimented on the transformation of matter. While researching in Oxford’s Bodleian Library she calls up a manuscript for her research: the mysterious Ashmole 782. With her first view of the manuscript she knows its bewitched, and after a brief encounter with the book, sends it back into the bowels of the library in order to keep her life divided from magic. With the finding and returning of Ashmole 782, Diana sends a ripple through the supernatural world: every witch, vampire, and daemon wants Diana and the manuscript. One vampire in particular, Dr. Matthew Clairmont, enters Diana’s world and changes it forever. Diana and Matthew begin fighting a world of magic, segregation, science, and thousands of years of history in order to not only be together, but figure out the blended future of for all the creatures.

Speaking of creatures, there are four types of creatures in this world: humans, witches, vampires, and daemons. I like that witches are distinct creatures, not just humans with magical powers. The vampires are a blend of the traditional myth with Harkness’s own twist, and daemons are manic, creative geniuses – similar to demigods but they are the creature with the most questions in regard to their creation and origin.

This book covers history, literature, philosophy, and science and the way it has shaped the world we live in. There’s so much more to this story than I can possibly summarize – Matthew’s personal history and his family, Diana’s history, her family, and her burgeoning magical powers, not to mention the ramifications of Ashmole 782 on the entire supernatural world. The world is so complete without being over-explained. I know the political landscape of the witches, vampires, daemons, and their fear of being discovered by humans while also adhering to their own strict rules against co-mingling. PLUS, Matthew is a scientist exploring the genetics of the creatures – how they differ and overlap with each other and with humans. If you know nothing about genetics, evolution, and DNA now, you’ll know more afterward. I already put myself on the waiting list for the Seven Daughters of Eve by Bryan Sykes at the university library.

I could spend an entire post just summarizing all the details of this novel. It is so fantastically fleshed out – the world is dynamic, the threat real, and I am ready for the next book to find out what happens next. I honestly considered not reviewing A Discovery of Witches and instead reviewing the entire trilogy. I feel like I read at least three different books in the span of one anyway.

Most of the novel is spent with Diana coming to terms with the fact the she herself is dangerous – she’s spent most of her life forcing herself to be a human instead of a witch. Diana must embrace her true nature as a creature and all that means – the danger, the violence, and the wonder. Her power is huge, uncontrolled, and unacknowledged and it’s led her to find herself both a risk to those around her and sometimes utterly defenseless. Diana is marvelous – she’s intelligent and decisive, a little stubborn but attempts to be logical when she realizes it, and is aware that she guards her emotions. Diana is fun to read. She was a character I liked following around. Her desire to be her own woman and to make her own way on her merits is admirable and relatable – she demonstrates how easy it would be to get all she wanted with magic, but she’d rather have done the work.

Matthew is a little…predictable. At first. He’s the super-hot vampire who’s lived for a long time and he’s seen everything and knows everyone and is experiencing a new kind of love for the first time, a love which he resisted and brooded about. You see his protectiveness coming from a mile away and the explanation of his predatory instincts is unsurprising if well thought out. What makes Matthew different is that there’s a certain level of self-awareness that his protectiveness is not always welcome or necessary, and that Diana is capable of taking care of herself. Matthew’s violence is also real, not just a threat made or an inference that he can’t control himself around warmbloods. Matthew kills because it’s his nature – not just to feed, but to protect and avenge. Matthew is a real danger, which makes him a dynamic character to follow.

It helps that Deborah Harkness is actually a science historian so her grasp of the background material is deep, and something she’s used to translating and theorizing on. Her ability to simply explain who historical people are, why they matter, and what their work was is done in such a way that someone without any other context can grasp it. It’s interesting because the author is reflected in both Diana and Matthew – the science historian connection is obvious, but the span of knowledge and research needed to write a novel this complete is pure Matthew.

This book is dense – not that it’s difficult to understand – there’s just A LOT going on. It’s a world that is easy and fun to disappear into, and I highly recommend for someone looking for an immersive read that you are going to get excited about. And that you will want the next book, Shadow of Night, immediately.

I give A Discovery of Witches 4.5/5 for being a wild, detailed ride of a novel and for leaving me wanting more. Half-star off because some of it feels oddly placed and improbable; I have full faith however that Harkness will resolve much of my few issues by the end of the trilogy.

Review – How to Hang a Witch

A haunting book about…ghosts! and witches. (rated 4/5)

This is a review of How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather – yes, one of those Mathers. It was released July 26, 2016 by Knopf. I read the whole thing in one night in about 5 hours, which is a kind of review in itself.

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How to Hang a Witch is the story of Samantha Mather, a descendant of Cotton Mather – the man considered to be one of the key instigators in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. By unfortunate circumstance, Samantha is forced to move to Salem with her stepmom – a town she’s never been to despite having an ancestral home and family history there. Samantha has also spent most of her life dogged by bad luck and existing in social isolation. Things don’t change much once she starts school in Salem and meets the Descendants – the children descended from the people hanged in the original trials; on top of that, she’s seeing a ghost and her bad luck is worse than ever. Digging through her family history, her grandmother’s journals, and even finding a way to reach out to the Descendants, Samantha realizes there is more than just a metaphorical curse on the town. The curse is real, and deadly. Samantha knows she needs to break the curse, she just needs to piece together her family’s history to save their future. With the help of actual ghost Elijah, living boy-next-door Jaxon, and Jaxon’s mother, she might just save Salem.

I came by this book in a rather interesting way. And it involves Harry Potter.

On July 31, 2016 I, like many of my fellow Potterheads, was at a store for the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. When you have an hour and a half to hang out in a bookstore, you have to be judicious in which books you choose to buy or you walk out broke. I actually did not buy HP and the CC in the store that night as I had already pre-ordered it, I was mostly there to hang out with my friend.

I saw How to Hang a Witch and was immediately intrigued, even more so when I saw that the author shared a last name with one of the more infamous people involved in the Salem Witch Trials. I went right to Mather’s bio on the back flap and when I learned she was an actual descendant of Cotton Mather, my interest was piqued before I’d even read the summary. A lot of people can sympathize with feeling like you have to live up to your last name or your family history, but being a Mather is quite a weight. I did not end up buying How to Hang a Witch that night, but the title and the concept followed me. I was haunted by the book before I even read it. I did buy other books that night, but I don’t regret not picking up this one.

Because of How to Hang a Witch and Adriana Mather, I joined the local library in my new town. My husband and I have only been living here a few months, and when I saw the library had this on its shelves, it was the sign I needed that it was time to hit the library. Libraries are amazing resources in our communities and supporting them is essential to increasing literacy, education, and community engagement. If you aren’t a member of your local library, I suggest joining ASAP. There are so many activities going on that allow you to meet new people and fellow book lovers.

So last night I went to the library, got the book, and started reading immediately. I started at about 7:00pm and finished just before midnight. It was worth being sleepy today to read this book in a giant gulp.

First and foremost, Samantha is likable and real. While she acknowledges she’s sarcastic, she’s also sympathetic. Few people in her life are nice to her, she’s been bullied by her peers and adults alike, and her parental support is nil or questionable; she’s hesitant to trust anyone and it’s clear with few flashbacks or much explanation that she has been deeply hurt by the people around her. And in spite of that, she’s hopeful and kind at her core. Samantha wants to do the right thing regardless of what that means for her. Unlike many of the other characters in the story, she’s deeply horrified by the Witch Trials, rather than fascinated or amused. The more she researches the persecution and falsity of the trials themselves, the more her true character is revealed. She sees that not much has changed from 1692 to today. I was a bit concerned when Mather wrote Samantha as klutzy, but was relieved when her lack of coordination did not render her incapable, or constantly in need of saving.

All of the characters are fairly well rounded and layered – except for a few very minor characters, I feel like I know more than just the surface level about the majority of them. I know what makes them tick, why they hurt, and what they are capable of for good or evil. At the start of the story, Samantha’s mother is dead and her father is absent (spoilers!) and yet I feel that I knew them.

The story itself has some genuinely, skin-creeping, spine-tingling scares and I knew it was one of those books I needed to finish in a sitting or I’d have scary dreams (that is definitely a compliment.) It’s not a happy story, and it explores some of the darkest parts of human nature. This is absolutely a story about humanity’s darkness, as well as a story about what it takes to overcome it.

The theme and the resolution gets a little jumbled toward the end – I won’t share any spoilers, but I will say that it got a bit messy when Samantha was trying to figure out messages from her ancestor and what it took to break the curse. I wasn’t sure where the story was going at that point, but I was satisfied in the end. While you see one of the bigger twists coming when you get close – a moment that kind of reminded me of the Beldam in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline – it did not go quite as I expected, and stayed very much true to the core messages of kindness and love in a way not many YA books with this much action would.

There’s a lot of complaining at the moment about the habit of YA love triangles, and I won’t deny How to Hang a Witch has the general shape of a triangle when it comes to romance. However, the love triangle is ultimately a subplot, and it’s not hard to figure out that one side of the triangle isn’t really a side. Samantha spends little page time thinking about her relationships or romantic feelings –  like a true, well-rounded human, she has bigger fish to fry  (or should I say, witches to hang?) than her relationship status.

Ultimately, I give How to Hang a Witch 4/5 for the excellent characters, atmospheric and relevant story, but one star off for the slightly jumbled ending. It’s a scary, emotional ride and would be a PERFECT book for the month of October. This is definitely a new ghost in my mental bookshelf, and I will be recommending it to others.