It begins with absence and desire

Have you ever read a series of books that have taken so long to be published that you’ve ever completely forgotten what happened in the first one? I’m hoping someone out there is going to say yes, otherwise I shall have to blame it on a 30s moment. 

Unfortunately Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy falls into that category; I first read the first in the series: A Discovery of Witches way back in 2011. As you can imagine, a several 100 books later, and the final book in the series: The Book of Life has just been published! Yay! I thought to myself on finding it in the bookshop and, with one purchase later and settling down to start it, within the first few pages I thought to myself that I didn’t actually have a clue what was going on. I usually have a very good memory for what’s happened in books, but for some reason you really needed to know in-depth what happened in the preceding two books.

I hate it when that happens.

So, dear readers, I’ve had to go back to first book – A Discovery of Witches and re-read it, so fair is fair, I’ll review it:

The books are truly part of the current literary fashion for vampires and supernatural stories, yet are more adult than perhaps the Twilight Saga, and a far better read than any of Charlaine Harris’ True Blood series. Yes, I’ve read them all, so that’s why I thought I’d give Deborah Harkness a go, I didn’t have much to lose, I had just managed to read all of the True Blood books and come to the opinion that the TV series was so much better (really, those books are truly pulp with no literary merit). Also, I thought Twilight was utterly appalling, so when I saw the review on the cover of this book that said something along the lines of “The thinking person’s Twilight”, I thought, hurrah! An intelligent, well-plotted, well-characterised fantasy with elements of a supernatural romance (give me a break, we’re all human – and I’m from the school of Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

The premise seemed interesting, A Discovery of Witches is set in modern times and features an adult ensemble of credible individuals – indeed, many of the main characters are several centuries old. The world’s population is divided into four types: humans, vicious vampires, creative daemons, and powerful witches. The heroine Diana is a witch but her powers have been hidden for years since the death of her parents. This is the story of what happens when her powers start to surface, and how her choices will affect the delicate balance of power among the other creatures. At the moment they all live in the shadows, but a liaison between a witch and a vampire is forbidden. When Diana falls for an eminent scientist, Matthew, who happens to be a far more than a run of the mill vampire, then the action kicks off. A war seems inevitable – and Diana, who possesses unheard of abilities, doesn’t know how to wield her natural talents. She’s in desperate danger, and her own kind most definitely aren’t to be trusted…

This isn’t a perfect book, but it’s a rip-roaring start to what promises to be a gripping series. It’s wonderful when a scholar lets imagination combine with years of research and expertise. The result is a world which I had no trouble believing in, enhanced by details from French, British and American history.

A Discovery Of Witches is also littered with references from real history and other supernatural fiction, so keen readers will recognise people and places from all sorts of lore, especially where the edges become blurred. Harkness skillfully weaves in details from the Salem witches, Crusades, and olde England to add to the depth of her universe.

The Vampire Lestat also gets a tip of that hat and, truly, if I had to compare this book to one other series then I would say it shares many similarities with Anne Rice’s universe – but A Discovery is a unique creation with its own identity. The haunted family house; the combination of modern DNA technology, old alchemy and the Goddess of ancient lore; the eating habits of these vampires: all are new and intriguing details which give credibility to the concept of this world.

Deborah Harkness writes with an easy style, not overly flowery but with plenty of detailed description. In fact, the first half of this volume is probably too well described; the `first half’ could have done with being edited down until it was the `first third’. We need to understand the normal life of the heroine, an adult historian researching her next paper, but the initial pace was pretty slow and I found the start of her courtship with Matthew to be almost painfully gradual. But the payoff later in the novel is worth the earlier slog, especially as soon as we meet Ysabeau and start to hear the revelations about Diana and Matthew’s secrets.

But if you enjoy side-stepping reality into a compelling world of other creatures, some of whom belong in the shadows, then you’ll be rewarded by putting the effort into this book. Do I love it as much as I did the first time? I’m not sure, perhaps supernatural fiction and TV has moved on since 2011 and we have become far more selective and streamlined. Don’t get me wrong, this book is great, and now that all three books are now published – well worth the effort to sit down and read.


The Knitty Gritty:

A Discovery of Witches  (ISBN 978-0-7553-7404-5)

Buy from your Local Bookseller, Amazon – or support your local Library!

Further Reading:

Interview with the Vampire – Anne Rice

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson

Florence & Giles – John Harding

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