SPOILER ALERT: Warning, this article contains links that contain spoilers from the All Souls novel trilogy which may appear in the screen adaptation. Proceed at your own risk.
“It begins with absence and desire. It begins with blood and fear. It begins with a discovery of witches.”
Those words welcome you to the world of A Discovery of Witches, which has just made its television debut in the UK and will be available via streaming services in the US at a later date. Based on the popular novel by Deborah Harkness, A Discovery of Witches is the first book in the All Souls Trilogy — so there’s plenty of material to mine if this eight-part drama is well-received.
A Discovery of Witches deals with, yes, witches, but also incorporates other supernatural beings, including vampires and daemons. Living silently alongside humans, around one in ten people is a magical being. The Congregation, a committee of representatives from each of the magical races, protects everyone by ensuring no supernatural being attracts the attention of humans. This also means strictly no inter-species mingling.
What distinguishes this fantasy universe from others is real-life professor Harkness’s decision to immerse her story in the academic sphere at the University of Oxford. Here, at the prestigious Bodleian Library, Diana Bishop stumbles across a curious manuscript, Ashmole 782, which attracts the interest of many of her fellow magical beings, including the enigmatic Matthew Clairmont, and sets her on a path of discovery and danger, which will take her far beyond her faculty at Oxford.
Want to know more? Read on for a human’s guide to the characters of A Discovery of Witches.
Charms, spells, potions, mind-reading and precognition are all possible for witches, although many tend to have leanings towards one or two gifts over the others.
A talented academic researching 17th-century alchemy at Oxford, Diana has gained tenure at Yale young. She is reluctant to use her powers as a witch after rejecting her magical heritage following her parents’ deaths when she was seven years old. She is a descendant of Bridget Bishop, who was executed during the Salem witch trials. Due to her exceptional witchcraft pedigree, Diana holds gifts that she is only just about to discover.
Sarah Bishop and Emily Mather
Sarah is Diana’s fiercely protective aunt, who acted as her guardian and raised her from a young age. She is also a skilled witch. Emily is her partner, a children’s librarian and a witch too. They live in upstate New York.
A witch and a classicist from Bryn Mawr, Gillian is keen for Diana to embrace her sisters and powers and join the local coven in Oxford. She also works alongside Knox after the discovery of Ashmole 782.
Knox is a powerful wizard and member of the Congregation. He warns — and threatens — Diana over her association with Matthew, and is desperate to know the secrets of Ashmole 782. He believes they will help protect and restore witches to their former glory. He also has a fondness for brown tweed.
Another member of the shadowy Congregation, this Finnish witch decides to try to find and capture Diana after learning of her importance. Not to be crossed.
Vampires are cold, focused, dangerous — and, of course, devastatingly attractive. They tend to hide in the solitary careers of scientists, where it is easier to disguise immortality.
Matthew is an elusive genius, affiliated with Oxford Neuroscience at the John Radcliffe hospital. He is also a charming, handsome, 1,500-year-old vampire, most interested in Diana’s discovery of Ashmole 782. As a geneticist, he is concerned for the future of his and other magical species, amid reports of failed vampire transformations. He hopes this manuscript — and Diana — may hold the key.
Marcus Whitmore and Miriam Shepherd
Scientific colleagues of Matthew’s, Marcus and Miriam are also interested in the survival of their race. Miriam, however, is less than impressed with Diana and disapproves of the relationship developing between her and Matthew.
Marcus is more affable, and is also son (in the vampire sense) to Matthew. Watch out for him as his backstory is to be fully revealed in Deborah Harkness’ new novel, Time’s Convert.
Ysabeau de Clermont and Baldwin Montclair
The imposing matriarch of the de Clermont family, Ysabeau is Matthew’s vampire mother and widow of Philippe de Clermont. She lives in the château of Sept-Tours in France and, inconveniently, dislikes witches.
Baldwin is Matthew’s vampire brother, as a sire of Philippe de Clermont. He’s a successful investment banker, probably having a good idea of how financial markets mature as he’s been around since the Roman times.
Another representative of the Congregation, this real-life Venetian was the 35th Doge of Venice and is an ancient vampire, and former friend of Matthew’s.
Gerbert D’Aurillac and Juliette Durand
Another real figure from history, Gerbert is a former pope, ancient vampire and neighbour to the de Clermonts. He’s a dark character, whose motives are dubious. Juliette is a vampire with a complicated past, both sired and watched over by him.
Daemons are creative, artistic, often unnerving creatures, with an equal inclination towards madness and genius. “Rock stars and serial killers,” as Diana’s aunt would describe them.
Despite common bad blood between their species, daemon Hamish is the best friend of vampire Matthew from their days together at All Souls. A financial genius, Hamish lives in Scotland and can be called upon to impart sage advice.
Agatha Wilson is a daemon member of the Congregation, an Australian, and a fashion designer. She makes contact with Diana early on in her bid to understand the significance of her discovery. Nathaniel Wilson is her son, and is married to fellow daemon Sophie Norman — who is the daughter of two witches. Their daughter, it transpires, is also a witch. You can see how this is going to become both complicated and significant.
Just one of significance in this category.
A very useful librarian at the Bodleian Library, Sean is a friend of Diana’s from graduate student days.
A Discovery of Witches premieres in the UK on September 14. A US premiere date is yet to be announced.