Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches

I decided to do the Book2Screen Challenge this year and I’m focusing solely on books with a TV series adaptation. If you’re going to talk about films, I feel like you should be able to do so intelligently – and I don’t know a lot about sound or camera techniques. TV is somehow easier…

I started off with an easy one in January, re-watching Bones and reading the first Temperance Brennan book, Deja Dead. You can check out my first Book2Screen Challenge post here.

I’d heard about the Sky TV show based on A Discovery of Witches, and thought it sounded good, so I decided to check it out next! I started my challenge with the TV series, and then read the book – which might seem counterintuitive, but, in this case, I think it actually improved the book for me.

A Discovery of Witches

Author: Deborah Harkness | Publisher: Headline

A world of witches, daemons and vampires.

A manuscript which holds the secrets of their past and the key to their future.

Diana and Matthew – the forbidden love at the heart of it.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about A Discovery of Witches… There were definitely things I liked about it, don’t get me wrong, but all in all I found it a bit of a struggle.

My main problem with the book was just its enormous length. I have backache from hauling it around. I mean, it is intimidatingly large! If a book is lengthy for a reason, I don’t have a problem with it, but, in this case, it was just stuffed with a completely unnecessary level of detail. I found myself mentally editing it down. It should have been half the size, and it would have been a better book. For example, did I really need to know whether women on their period make vampires snackish? No, no I did not. Why was there a half page discussion about that? The reader ends up getting mired in a lot of extraneous sidebars, and I found it frustrating. The first golden rule of writing is surely to leave something to the reader’s imagination. And the second should be to think about pace and tension.

It felt like there were a lot of problems with A Discovery of Witches would could, and should, have been resolved with a good edit. I don’t claim to be an expert on grammar, for example, but even I could spot the glaring errors. We have grammatical rules for a reason. If you’re going to break those rules, it should be for effect and not a result of a failure to read your own work before you publish it.

There was also a lot of “tell” rather than “show”, which always feels amateurish to me. I like when the writer gives you just enough to form your own picture of a character or a place – and, admittedly, finding that balance is an art form in its own right. But here there was just no attempt to show the reader anything. No imaginative effort required. We had every excruciating detail explained to us, like a child being given instructions to make a paint by numbers.

The book felt over-written and it lacked the sophistication it might have had if a decent editor has gotten their hands on it.

There were details which felt jarring to me. While the worldbuilding itself was generally excellent, and I enjoyed the use of real world setting and details to give the book texture, I’m just not sure how I feel about things like vampires doing yoga. Call me prejudiced, but I like my vampires slightly more Dracula, and slightly less Russell Brand…

However, these little niggles pale into compared besides the cringy Insta-love between Matthew and Diana. Has the author never had a real relationship? Has she never actually been in love, passed the age of 16? I mean, come on… They met, within days have decided they’re in love, and then they kiss – so now they’re married? And they’re both willing to give up everything and start a war because of it? Not even a second thought, like, hey, I’ve just met this person… Maybe it might be a good idea to get to know them first, before I start running off and getting a bunch of people killed? No? She’s a witch, brought up in a world where different species of “creatures” don’t mix, did she really have no prejudices to overcome? I don’t buy it. And their expressions of devotion were beyond cringy. If someone started telling me how we were “destined to be together” and whatnot, I just think I’d like them less… I honestly almost DNF’d it because I was worried about wrinkles from pulling that “awks” face…

And let’s not even get into how sexist the whole thing is… If I was dating someone and they started giving me orders, telling me they were the head of the family so I had to “obey”, and frightening me to “prove I could be strong”… Yeeh… We would have had a very different conversation…

That being said, I did finish A Discovery of Witches in the end. Basically, the plot’s solid and I wanted to know what happened. The worldbuilding is good, and I loved the way real history, myths, science and conspiracy theory were woven into the plot and used to form the backbones of what, where, how and why. It gave it some much needed depth, for me.

The book is also quite LGBT and racially inclusive, which I liked. It’s rare to find a book written nearly ten years ago which is so openly accepting and diverse. It would have been strange had it not been, considering the essential message seemed to be about overcoming societal prejudices.

All in all, I’m not quite sure how I feel about A Discovery of Witches. I very much enjoyed the story, and will probably read the next book in the series, but I struggled with the romance element (which was extremely prominent in the story) and felt it would have been improved by a good pruning by a competent editor.

3 Archimedes


I convinced my partner to watch A Discovery of Witches with me, and I have to say that, while we found it a little cringy at points, we did enjoy it.

It was nice to see that the TV series stuck so closely to the plot of the book, as that doesn’t always happen. The choice of locations and actors were also very strongly modelled on the descriptions and details in the book, so the adaptation felt very representative of its source material.

The Insta-love between Matthew and Diana was still super cringy. It was also a little unrealistic the way the characters popped up in Scotland within a day, and then Venice, France, and back to Oxford. In the book, suitable timeframes were allowed for travel, but it had obviously been cut down for the screen.

The cast was more diverse than the book, and I liked the little inserts about the way women and people of colour are underrepresented in politics, and the challenges faced by people in same-sex relationships in a small, rural community. It felt very modern and reflective of a modern society, a modern society’s concerns and issues. The good guys were nuanced, but suitably “good”, and the bad guys suitably scary. I also thought the supernatural elements were handled with subtlety so they didn’t feel out of place in a visually modern setting. The changes made for the screen were generally a vast improvement.

There were several examples of stunning camera work and some of the places the series were shot really were gorgeous, which added to its appeal.

In a screen setting, the way each episode was divided, and the use of multiple perspectives, lent the series a wonderful tension and sense of intrigue. It was well paced, and we were gripped to the end. Even the ending itself, while leaving the audience with questions, was carefully balanced to also give closure. I was left wondering whether the book might not have benefited from similar changes, such as using multiple perspectives to tell the story.

It’s not the type of show I normally watch, but we both definitely enjoyed the adaptation of A Discovery of Witches. In many ways the TV show addressed the structural concerns and inconsistencies of the book. Arguably, I think the TV series might have been slightly better for its ability to cast a critical eye over its material and make difficult choices. However, if there is a season 2, I’m not sure I’ll watch it; while I might just pick up the second book.


9 thoughts on “A Discovery of Witches”

  1. I really want to watch this show, so I feel like I have to read the book haha. Your review makes me a bit hesitant to read it.
    Great review though!


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hahaha oh dear! Honestly, the book had serious problems – but the story is fantastic, so it ends up hooking you in. I wouldn’t say not to read it at all! But the TV show was probably easier going. And it stuck pretty closely to the book… maybe just watch that? Lol

    Liked by 1 person

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