A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I realize I am late to the party with this book, but seriously, I only “discovered” A Discovery of Witches, and forgive my cheesy-ass pun, when the Sundance Channel started airing the previews for the TV series based on the book trilogy. The series looked so well-made that I had to read the book and find out what all the hype was about.

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I’ll be honest and say off the top that no one does witches and vampires better than Anne Rice. They simply don’t. The woman has taken lush, lyrical, sometimes purple prose to new heights of sensuality when describing the taste of blood, the sensation of magic affecting the world around us, the scent of skin and flesh, the feeling of luxury in the smallest of details. So I went in fully not expecting anything similar to hers, but still hoping for a good read. And I wasn’t disappointed, though it was a different experience than what I’d expected.

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Matthew Clairmont is a vampire and Diana Bishop is a witch, in this fascinating universe of humans, vampires, witches, and daemons. They are both scholars in Oxford, Matthew a geneticist and medical doctor, and Diana a PhD-carrying professor of ancient alchemical texts. They meet in a library when Diana, whose witch talents have been “bound” since childhood, inadvertently unearths the magical tome Ashmole 782, an ancient book of magic that purportedly gives the secrets of how vampires, witches and daemons came into being and how any of these magical races might destroy the other and rule the world.

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Slightly melodramatic, yes. Of course, they have an instant attraction to one another, and of course they end up falling in love. The trajectory of their romance isn’t what you’d expect, though, since vampires, witches and daemons are forbidden from “fraternizing,” and they don’t consummate their love, at least not in this book. There are two more after this book, so hopefully they get some action in one of those. 😉

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Harkness writes with an unusual mix of historical reverence and modern sensibility, having her characters be these magical creatures with godlike powers, eternal life, and incredible talents…….and they do yoga. No, seriously. I about died laughing in the beginning of the book when Matthew courts Diana by taking her to a yoga class. Nothing against yoga here, but just the thought of a centuries-old blood drinker twisting himself into a downward-facing dog position gave me the giggles. Anyway, I digress.

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I do have to say that I didn’t much like the character of Matthew, quite honestly. I get that vampires, in this literary universe, are protective of those they love, and at heart, are predators so they consider the chase and the hunt an elemental part of any interaction and relationship. That, combined with being centuries old and being essentially a bossy, old-fashioned man who thinks he knows everything, make him a jerk. Pardon my crudeness, but yes, Matthew Clairmont is sort of a dick. He grew on me eventually, but I still think he’s an arrogant ass at times.

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There are some superb food references in this book, for being in the culinary repertoire of an ancient vampire who doesn’t even ingest food, at least, not much food. Matthew invites Diana to dinner at his elegant home when they are starting to fall in love, though ostensibly he is only inviting her to protect her from the other witches, vampires and daemons who have also sensed that the magical Ashmole has been unearthed and want to get their claws on it. But we all know Matthew has more on his mind than a book.

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The next course was a stew, with chunks of meat in a fragrant sauce. My first bite told me it was veal, fixed with apples and a bit of cream, served atop rice. Matthew watched me eat……..”it’s an old recipe from Normandy,” he said. “Do you like it?” “It’s wonderful,” I said. “Did you make it?”

I know the book specifies that Matthew makes Diana an old French-style veal stew with apples, but I can’t really stomach veal these days, so in honor of the fact of Matthew’s essential Frenchness, I opted instead for a beef stew with Dijon mustard and brandy. Can you get more Gallic than Dijon and brandy? 🙂

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 shallots, chopped
4 tablespoons butter, as needed
2 pounds beef chuck, cubed
2 tablespoons flour
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup brandy
4 cups beef stock, preferably unsalted as the Dijon has quite a lot of salt
1/2 cup stoneground mustard
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into small chunks
1/2 pound mushrooms, stemmed, cleaned and quartered
1/2 cup red wine

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven and add the shallots, with a sprinkle of sea salt over them. Cook until softened but not browned, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove to a bowl.

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Add the butter to the oil in the pan.

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Add the flour, salt and pepper to a large plastic bag, then put in the beef cubes to coat. Shake off excess flour with tongs, and place half the cubes in the pan.

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Cook over medium-high heat until well browned and crusty on all sides, then put into the bowl with the shallots. Repeat with the remaining beef cubes.

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Add the brandy to the empty pan, and cook, stirring, until the bottom is deglazed and any crusted-on bits come loose.

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Pour in the beef stock, the Dijon mustard and the stoneground mustard. Whisk to blend, then return meat and onion mixture to pan. Lower heat, cover pan partway, and simmer gently until meat is very tender, about 1 and 1/2 hours.

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Add carrots, and continue simmering for 40 minutes, or until slices are tender.

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The last 15 minutes of cook time, add the mushrooms and the red wine to the bubbling, fragrant stew. Simmer another 5 minutes, taste for seasoning, and serve with butter noodles and red wine to drink.

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So good and richly flavored! The mustard and brandy really complement one another, and perfectly tenderize the beef. No doubt a vampire would approve. I know we loved it so much we ate it all up before I could take the requisite “food and book” photo, so yet another shot of the luscious stew will have to suffice.

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23 thoughts on “A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

    1. Yes, Anne Rice is the best when it comes to vampires and witches, but this is a definite great read and offers a very different and engaging take on them. I really do recommend the series! And we really enjoyed that stew!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’m not reading the book, but am enjoying the series; I think it doesn’t do much to convey the mystery and sensuality and it’s a little slow, but I’m still getting into it. I wish I had a big pot of your stew – it sounds wonderful. It’s been raining all day and we’re supposed to get snow (yes, snow) tomorrow and this stew would have been perfect!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I enjoyed the series as well but as always, the book gives so much more depth. If you do decide to read it, I think you’ll enjoy it. And I’m so sorry to hear that you guys are getting snow. It’s a bit chilly at 72゚ here lol, but we are welcoming a break from the usual drought and hot temperatures we’re used to at this time of year. I hope the snow melts soon.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That recipe looks amazing! And, you had me at “And they do yoga!” Now, I have to read this. I also find the carrots to be an appropriate “swap out” for the apples, given Matthew’s character, as you describe it 😉

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    1. The yoga really threw me when I was reading this. I seriously started giggling and couldn’t stop for a couple of minutes. It’s just such a mundane thing for supernatural creatures to be doing……I don’t know, I like my vampires dark and mysterious and wrapped in black velvet cloaks and surrounded by swirling mist…….not doing the downward-facing dog. But that’s just me. 😉 It’s really a wonderful series of books if you decide to give it a whirl. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. ….a: the food… man, its scent crosses the page, deep, layered and completely fulfilling. With a good (blood) red burgundy… maybe not too far from what a vampire feels when its thirst is satiated. b: since I don’t read vampire and such books or see the movies, (well, a scene or two of Beckinsale in a black skin suit,) except for nosferatu, and a little Jarmusch’s flick… I wonder if you’ve read any other books/authors that might explore it… richly. Ie, seems like an obvious invention, iconic sure but such an open place to explore what it’s like, so deeply, to be such a personage, something a writer could take his or her time with, using language as well, rhythm, voice, ecc.

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    1. I am a huge Anne Rice fan, and in my opinion, she perfectly explores and describes the boundary and connection between blood and sex in a very literary and intelligent way, without being overly “purple” in her prose. Her vampires are very sensual in that they are attuned so strongly to all of their senses, so the most mundane experience for a human is, to them, incredibly sensual. Whether it’s the feel of velvet, the sound of a cello, the taste of blood or the sensation of teeth entering a neck……and you can see the analogy there……..her blood drinkers are very much sensualists.

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  4. I have had this book on my iPad for a few years and not gotten around to reading it. Thanks for the reminder! I will have to add it to my list of ‘to read’. Ciao, Cristina. PS I agree with you about Anne Rice

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really enjoyed it and am actually on my second reading of the entire series, though I admit it did take me a few chapters to get fully into it. I think you’d really enjoy it. And thank you for your comment about Anne Rice! The woman is such an amazingly sensual and beautiful writer and no one can come close when it comes to witches and vampires.

      Liked by 1 person

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