Book Group report: The All Souls Trilogy: volume 1

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I have a confession to make. When this book was first published in 2011, I was sent a proof copy. I think that back then, I was a bit ‘vamped’ out, so I put it on the shelf – and forgot about it – until we managed to pick it for our Oct/Nov book group read. What’s more, even worse, when I opened up the proof, I found this!

So I apologise profusely to the publisher’s publicists! This was a lovely touch.

Now to the book itself. We picked this one out of the hat from a shortlist of books with ‘Oxford’ settings – our theme for the month was nothing to do with vampires and witches at all. However, for reading over a month which finished with Halloween, followed by All Saints and All Souls days, it turned out to be rather appropriate. And I can file it under my seasonal theme:

As in JK Rowling’s world, where muggles rarely have any idea of the wizarding folk living amongst them, Harkness has come up with a variant on that in which there are three kinds of supernatural beings living alongside humans and trying to keep their true natures hidden: they are vampires, daemons and witches. As the book begins, Dr Diana Bishop, an American visiting scholar at All Souls college, is collecting a book in Duke Humphrey’s Reading Room in the Bodleian Library in Oxford…

The leather-bound volume was nothing remarkable. To an ordinary historian, it would have looked no different from hundreds of other manuscripts in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, ancient and worn. But I knew there was something odd about it from the moment I collected it. […]

But – albeit unwittingly – I had called up an alchemical manuscript that I needed for my research and that also seemed to possess an otherworldly power that was impossible to ignore. My fingers itched to open it and learn more. An even strong impulse held me back: Was my curiosity intellectual, related to my scholarship? Or did it have to do with my family’s connection to witchcraft.

It’s the latter of course! As soon as Diana tries to open the manuscript, it activates a spell that draws the attention of all the supernatural beings around. ‘Ashmole 782’ turns out to be a book that witch, daemon and vampire leaders have been searching for for centuries, believed to hold the secrets to their existence. Diana, sends the book back to the stacks, where like the ark of the covenant in Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade, it will lose itself.

Diana, who comes from a family of witches, but is in denial about her own powers, realises that something happened when she looked at the book, and this is the beginning of a new life of adventure for the academic doctor. Next time she goes to the library, she finds herself watched – by daemons, other witches, and a tall and handsome vampire. He is Matthew de Clermont, and yes, you guessed it, they will eventually fall for each other presenting huge problems for a relationship between two different supernatural beings. He manfully takes Diana under his protection, and this feisty scholar effectively wilts, offering up little resistance to his plans to keep her safe, when everyone wants her, the book, and her powers which were able to get past the protective spell on it. Diana will have to accept that she is a supremely powerful witch, and will need to learn to harness her powers. Diana’s adventure moves on from Oxford to France, where she stays with Matthew’s vampire mother, who lives in a proper castle, and eventually back to the USA to her family home in New England. At every stage there will be trials and attacks on Diana and her protector.

But that’s enough plot, suffice to say that after 592 large pages of the proof (704 in paperback), we’re left on a cliff-hanger ending. No resolution, only questions, not least of which is whether to carry on with the next book in the sequence.

I did enjoy reading this book, and most of our book group did too on various levels. We felt it offered a rather sanitised tourist vision of Oxford, although it was great to have Duke Humphrey’s Library (which if you’re not a reader, can only be seen on the official Bodleian tours) as a major setting, All Souls College (which is real) too. When the novel moved to France, the castle provided an equally lavish location; this did make the Bishop’s New England house feel terribly twee in comparison though.

It is obvious that Harkness had done masses of research for the book, yet we felt we learned nothing particularly new about vampires and witches, the daemons didn’t feature very strongly in the first volume and remain elusive. What was surprising though was how chaste the book was, but then Matthew and Diana do have to find a way to have fun that won’t result in him spilling her blood, as in Twilight.  It had the promise of a bodice-ripper, but didn’t deliver on that premise – which was fine! Diana’s development of her witches powers was well done though – I liked her water power – drowning in tears, which reminded me of Alice in Wonderland.

This was Harkness’s first novel, and it shows. The writing was frequently exhausting; like Donna Tartt, every little thing is described in full, but not quite as well. However, I think I have been hooked enough, unlike with Twilight, to read the next one at least (and I will own up to having a proof of vol 2 also on the shelf). One of our group has read the second book already and assured us that there are developments and that questions begin to be answered. It has also been adapted for Sky TV, so I may see if that matches my vision of this book. (7/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you! Deborah Harkness, A Discovery of Witches (Headline, 2011) paperback, 704 pages. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s via affiliate links.

12 thoughts on “Book Group report: The All Souls Trilogy: volume 1

  1. Laura says:

    Wow, love the marketing!

    I also had a proof copy of this when it first came out. I enjoyed the sections set in Oxford (yes, it’s a fantasy Oxford but I liked inhabiting it 🙂 ) but found the rest of the book a bit of a slog. I never felt especially inspired to try the next two books in the trilogy – the aspect of the first novel I’d liked the most was Diana balancing her identities as a researcher and a witch, and I got the sense that the next two novels were going to depart even further from that starting-point.

    I recently watched the first few episodes of the recent TV series which also has a very silly view of Oxford and of life as an academic, but was quite fun. (I wasn’t able to finish it as I watched it at my dad’s and don’t have the channel it was on).

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was an obvious choice in a way for an ‘Oxford’ book we’d not read, as there’d been lots in the local news about the filming of the TV series. I think I will carry on as I am intrigued to see how she manages the cross-species(!) romance!

  2. Margaret says:

    Oh dear I should get this one out and finish reading it. I abandoned it last year to read other books and meant to get back to it – and then forgot all about it!

  3. Calmgrove says:

    Yet another title I’ve been long been tempted by, so I was grateful for this assessment which has encouraged me to keep considering it, despite your few caveats. Thanks!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I originally aimed to post my review during Witch Week, but life intervened and that didn’t happen. There was plenty to enjoy in this book, including literary references and alchemical know-how, but it was over-detailed in parts and of course long, but I’m sure you’d enjoy picking out all the influences etc.

      • Calmgrove says:

        Over-detailing and lengthy works for some texts though, doesn’t it: I’m thinking of Jonathan Strange, for example, so I suppose it then depends on the quality of the writing and the propensity to satisfy the anticipation that is built up, which this novel doesn’t quite seem to have done for you.

          • Calmgrove says:

            Hah! I initially tried to research the ‘sources’ mentioned in the footnotes, shows how ably Clarke managed to create the illusion that this was an early 19th century text!

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