BOOK REVIEW: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
History professor Deborah Harkness has leapt from the scholarly pursuits of academia to best-selling fiction author in what seems like the blink of an eye. And it is magic that has propelled her from such studious nonfiction works as The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution to her novel A Discovery of Witches, released this month and already a best seller.

A fantasy full of dreaded things that go bump in the night — and in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, one of the settings — Harkness’ book has some elements that are distinctly similar to the author’s reality as a history of science scholar.

Her protagonist, Diana Bishop, is a Yale historian doing research at Oxford’s famed library, something Harkness has done.

“I was in Oxford on a Fulbright scholarship when I did my doctoral research,” Harkness said in a recent interview. “I spent eight to 10 hours a day in the library.”

The plot’s spark is a lost manuscript that Bishop discovers at the library, something Harkness has also done.

“I found a book that had belonged to Queen Elizabeth I‘s court astrologer, John Dee. He was her astrologer and picked her coronation date, and he owned a book he prized very greatly. We’ve known it only by the title, but it had been lost. … It was in the Bodleian Library. I found it completely by accident when I was looking for something else. It was a book of spells, The Book of Soyga.”

And there the two, Bishop and Harkness, head in different, yet occasionally crossing paths.

Bishop’s find forces her to embrace her family’s past — she comes from a long line of witches — and leads her into the embrace of a vampiric love interest, Matthew Clairmont, as she dodges demons unhappy with her discovery.

For Harkness, the path was not quite so supernatural. She became a college professor (she currently teaches at the University of Southern California) and a nonfiction author, publishing her first book in 1999, John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature. But somehow that was not quite enough.

“One of the reasons I wrote [A Discovery of Witches] is I write academic books, which are very dear to a rather small academic audience. But I teach and I like sharing the history I love with other people and [the novel] became a way for me to do that.”

The actual writing of the novel had its own magical beginning.

“It was a complete accident,” Harkness explained. “I was on vacation in Mexico, and it was the rainy season, only we didn’t really know that, so I spent a lot of time in a hotel room, looking out at rain. … At the airport, I had noticed how many books there were about vampires and witches. And I started thinking about how in the 16th century a belief in witches made a certain kind of sense with their worldview. … Literally the book came from my thinking about the question: If there really are vampires and witches, what do they do for a living?

“I approached it like a historian. … The story started for me building an answer that made sense. You’d be a scientist or an investment banker. Both science and investment banking are about long-term returns.  If you’re a vampire you’d have centuries to think about things.”

Whatever her creative process, Harkness’ answer is a nearly 600-page fantasy that is drawing fans in the United States and the United Kingdom, fans who will be happy to know the book is the first in a trilogy, but Harkness is “sworn to secrecy” about the other two books.

“It’s so hard to keep my mouth shut, [but] I can tell you the second book picks up right where the first book leaves off.”

While Diane Bishop’s life is on hold until the second novel is released, Harkness’ path is rigorously defined.

“I wrote the [first] book while I was teaching full time. And I imagine myself continuing doing exactly what I’m doing, which is teaching very bright students at a wonderful university and doing my academic research. And every morning I get up and I turn on my computer and write fiction. I hope that’s what I’ll keep doing: teaching and research and writing.”

To occupy Harkness’ more curious readers in the meantime, here is an interesting tidbit from the author: Ashmole 782, the lost manuscript Bishop finds in the Bodleian Library, “is a real manuscript and the only thing we know about it is that it’s missing.”

Crossposted at the North County Times.