LJ Best Books 2017

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Librarians’ Best Books of 2011: Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches

Neal Wyatt, RA expert and LJ columnist, loves Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches (Viking).

What We Said:

Destined to be popular with fantasy and paranormal aficionados, this enchanting novel is an essential purchase. Harkness is an author to watch. Nine-city author tour; the novel will be translated into 32 languages.

What She Says:

Years working with ALA’s CODES various award lists have beaten out of me the ability to happily pick a single work as my favorite of the year. Instead, I tend to have a hefty pile of possibilities. Lauren Gilbert already wrote about one beloved title‚ make sure you read her post on The Swerve. I also enthusiastically second Maura Deedy’s pick of The Tiger’s Wife, which is astounding on audio as well.

One of the books in my pile of 2011 treasures is Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches, a lush, old-fashioned novel about Diana Bishop, a witch scholar, and Matthew Clairmont, a vampire scientist, that nods, in charming, clever, and highly entertaining ways, to some wonderful genre conventions.

In this first entry of an expected trilogy, the story centers on Diana, a Yale professor on leave to conduct research at Oxford’s Bodleian library. When she comes across a manuscript known as Ashmole 782, she unwittingly invites the attention of the entire magical world‚ consisting of daemons, vampires, and witches‚ and particularly the attention of Matthew. The attention is unwanted, and dangerous, as what Diana has done has not been achieved in hundreds of years. She has opened a book many crave but none can read; a text protected by a spell no one has broken before.

As plot is not the best way to share a book with a reader, I’ll stop the summary here and focus on the elements that made me happy to read it. First and foremost, it is a novel full of books and people who appreciate their power. Large portions of the narrative are set in libraries. The Bodleian occupies the first section; the middle has its own wondrous library, the astounding personal collection gathered over centuries by a vampire who was around when Gutenberg’s bible was hot of the press (as it were); when the working drafts of Shakespeare’s plays could be gathered up (while drinking with him, the book invites one to imagine, after each show); and when On the Origin of Species was in its first edition and Darwin received letters in response to his ideas.

The book is highly evocative. While strongly female-centric, it is set within a frame of what has to be one of the most compulsively intriguing ideas for anyone who early on in their reading lives fell in love with the idea of knights, orders, and comradeship. Harkness balances the powers and history of the Bishop clan of witches with the even longer history and powers of the vampire Knights of Lazarus, a chivalric order that incorporated the tattered remnants of the Templars and has had a hand in every major war and reign for centuries.

Additionally, the novel’s settings and details are delightful. Diana’s sentient and demanding house in upper New York state is haunted with family ghosts who also let their opinions be known. The magical and real worlds comingle. Deamons, witches, and vampires must hide their true nature from humans, but they have tea at Blackwell’s bookshop, are members of the Royal Society, and offer advice to Britain’s prime minister.

Finally, it is a book about learning to master something, which comes with its own fierce appeal of competence.

Neal’s Favorite Quote:

In the center of the room, a monk, a knight in full armor, and a musketeer peered into an even deeper hole that emitted a feeling of such loss that I couldn’t bear to go near it. The monk muttered the mass for the dead, and the musketeer kept reaching into the pit as if looking for something he had lost.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net


  1. Joe Garrison says:

    Although I seldom read books about witches and vampires, Neal’s beautifully written review has inspired me to read “A Discovery of Witches.” I have never been disappointed following her recommendations.

    And thank you, Neal, for not revealing the entire plot.

  2. Erin says:

    I love this book! So happy to see it make a top 2011 list.

  3. Joyce Saricks says:

    Wow! I’ve read the book, but Neal’s description makes me appreciate it–and Harkness’s skill in creating it–even more. She’s right: give it a try!

  4. Jo says:

    I was on a trip when I listened to this as an audio book. I did not want to get out of the car when the trip was over because I had not finished the book. I loved the detail that was included, I could tell the author had done a lot of research.

  5. Christina says:

    I listened to this book, and it is a great audio interpretation. I agree with those above who said Neal’s review really made me appreciate the book more. I’d forgotten that I liked it as much as I did!