A Discovery of Witches is a 2011 historical-fantasy novel and the debut novel by American scholar Deborah Harkness. It follows the story of Diana Bishop, an alchemical history professor at The University of Oxford who, after accidentally calling an elusive, long-thought-lost manuscript, is compelled to embrace the magic in her blood she has sought to keep out of her life and engage in a forbidden romance with charming vampire Matthew Clairmont.
The book received mostly positive feedback from literary critics. It was praised for its intelligence and the mixture of history with fantasy, although some critics felt the plot was trite and the pacing was slow. Comparisons were made between other popular fantasy series, namely Twilight and Harry Potter. The novel began as a "thought experiment" for Harkness, who had previously only published works of historical non-fiction. She drew upon her academic background as a historian and her studies of alchemy, magic and the occult.
A Discovery of Witches was first published in hardcover on February 8, 2011 by Penguin Books, becoming a New York Times Best Seller upon its release. It has since been released in paperback and also as an ebook. The novel has been translated into more than 36 languages around the world. A Discovery of Witches is the first installment in the All Souls trilogy, followed by Shadow of Night (2012) and completed with the third novel in the series, The Book of Life (July, 2014). Warner Bros. had purchased the rights to create a film adaptation but without beginning production, the rights reverted to the author. As of the beginning of 2015, the project to take the first book "A Discovery of Witches" to film is still categorized as in development. No additional information has been provided by the author to create a film adaptation of the first installment in Harkness's trilogy.
According to Harkness, the novel began as "a thought experiment" after she noticed the plethora of novels surrounding vampires and magic at an airport bookshop. As a historian, she noted that people today were interested in reading about the same sorts of subjects as they would have in the past: the supernatural. "In some ways I think their popularity right now is about our feeling that we still want there to be magic and enchantment in the world," theorises Harkness. "Magic provides a way of still having room for possibilities, an unlimited sense of what the world offers. Magic is always there when science is found wanting." Harkness has studied magic and the occult since 1983, which provided much of the inspiration for the novel.
The writing of the novel took place in the early mornings "in the blissful quiet before [she] switched on [her] email", while she also continued teaching at The University of Southern California during the day, and blogging about wine in the evenings. Aside from Anne Rice novels that she "read and loved" in her twenties, Harkness claims she has not read other vampire fiction such as The Historian or the Twilight series. Some elements of this novel sprang directly from Harkness' own life: she has spent many hours engaged in research in the Bodleian Library's Reading Room, and in the course of her own research, Harkness discovered an ancient—and long-lost—book of spells, the Book of Soyga.
A Discovery of Witches first achieved attention from publishers at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair. It was then published by Viking Press for a North American release in February 2011. The novel was commercially successful, debuting at number two in Hardcover Fiction on the New York Times Best Seller list, and number eight on the USA Today Best-Selling Book list. Two months after publication, A Discovery of Witches was already in its seventh printing.
The novel was generally praised and deemed a strong literary debut. Rating the novel a B+, Entertainment Weekly's Karen Valby was positive in her review, labeling it an "extraordinarily fun debut" and remarking that "Harkness writes with thrilling gusto about the magical world. Whether she's describing a yoga class for witches, daemons, and vampires or Diana's benignly haunted house, it's a treat to suspend disbelief." Though she thought the novel dragged for a bit, "the pages turned faster, almost as if on their own" as the action picked up and "by the most satisfying end, Harkness had made me a believer." Parade gave the novel a glowing endorsement, writing, "Harkness’ sure hand when it comes to star-crossed love and chilling action sequences in striking locales makes for an enchanting debut." O, The Oprah Magazine listed "A Discovery of Witches" as one of its 15 Books to Watch for in February 2011, deeming it "romantic, erudite, and suspenseful" and noting "Harkness attends to every scholarly and emotional detail with whimsy, sensuality, and humor." In a starred review, Library Journal judged that "A Discovery of Witches" to be an "enchanting novel... an essential purchase" and that Harkness "is an author to watch". On the novel, the review elaborated: "readers will find themselves invested in Diana’s success at unlocking the secrets of the manuscript. Although not a nail-biting cliff-hanger, the finale skillfully provides a sense of completion while leaving doors open for the possibility of wonderful sequel adventures. This reviewer, for one, hopes they come soon!"
Critics praised Harkness' attention to detail and history, rare in paranormal romance novels. The San Antonio Express-News described it as a "rare historical novel that manages to be as intelligent as it is romantic [and] it is supernatural fiction that those of us who usually prefer to stay grounded in reality can get caught up in." Nisi Shawl of The Seattle Times noted that "though the quality of "Discovery's" prose remains no more than clear and serviceable, its erudite references to the leather-bound boards of incunabulae and secret ingredients in medieval inks make it a welcome relief." Margot Adler of NPR called A Discovery of Witches "a tour de force, an artful and unusually skilled blending of hard science, history and the supernatural." A 'Best Book of the Month' for February 2011, Amazon.com described the novel as "a mesmerizing and addictive read, equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense... This smart, sophisticated story harks back to the novels of Anne Rice, but it is as contemporary and sensual as the Twilight series-with an extra serving of historical realism."
In a more mixed review for The Guardian, Jenny Turner panned the quality of the writing but admitted the ideas were interesting: "This is a very silly novel. Characters and relationships are stereotyped. The historical background is a total pudding. The prose is terrible. And yet, the ideas have just enough suction, somehow, to present an undemanding reader with some nice frissons." Elizabeth Hand, writing for The Washington Post, criticized the subject matter and wrote that "this novel’s pacing is so torpid that readers may feel that aged, too." Comparisons have been made between "A Discovery of Witches" and other popular fantasy series - namely Twilight, in the dynamics of Diana and Matthew's relationship, and Harry Potter in the co-existence of magical and non-magical creatures. It has been referred to as "Harry Potter for grown-ups." The novel was also compared to the work of Diana Gabaldon. Harkness said that she is a huge fan of Gabaldon and sees the comparisons as flattering.
Warner Bros. purchased the film rights to A Discovery of Witches in the summer of 2011. The film is still in the early stages of development, with few details released beyond the signing-on of playwright David Auburn to pen the screenplay and producers Denise Di Novi and Allison Greenspan who have worked on Little Women, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Practical Magic. The screenplay is complete and the production team is being assembled.