(Single issue column today.)
A Discovery of Witches, the TV show, is the product of a collaboration between AMC and BBC. It airs on AMC and is available to stream from AMC+. The series is based on the Deborah Harkness ALL SOULS trilogy and features witches, demons and vampires in the modern (and very upper-crust!) world. Here are our reviews of the first book.
Since this story travels globally and through time, the cast is large. I’ll give a truncated cast list at the end.
I haven’t read any of the books. This gave me a perspective on the show that I don’t usually get with adaptations; I was coming to it fresh, with no idea what was going on.
Sadly, by the end of the second season, I still had no idea what was going on.
On the plus side, the show is beautifully filmed in gorgeous locations, even if the stock footage becomes obvious as the show progresses. Diana Bishop, our main character, is a witch who has somehow been separated from her powers and has settled for becoming a scholar and studying alchemy, as one does. She has come to Oxford to research her latest book. In the Bodleian Library, she requests a book, Ashmole 782, and it arrives in a stack with the others she’s ordered. Not so strange except the book has been missing for four hundred years! Also, the pages seem to be blank, but Diana starts reading them, and suddenly, all over the place, vampires, demons and witches are interested in Oxford and Diana. The most interested is a scientist vampire named Matthew, who is trying to figure out why the “creature” species (as they call themselves) seem to be dying out. Attempting to trick the book away from Diana, Matthew falls in love with her and she with him. This is (dun-dun DUNNN) forbidden, and now everybody is out to break them up and get the book. The book, by the way, has gone back into hiding.
By “everybody” I mean the Congregation, a governing body comprised of witches, vampires and demons, who meet on an invisible island in the Venetian Lagoon. A witch named Satu is in league with the nasty political vampire named Gerbert, and a swarmy Venetian vampire named Domenico is offering to help out Knox, the equally nasty witch politician. Back in the USA, Diana’s witch aunt Sarah and Sarah’s partner Emily keep talking to her on the phone (I think for witches, the time difference is unimportant) telling her to stay away from Matthew. Diana’s answer is always the same; “But I love Matthew!” she bleats, like a hungry lamb. For two-thirds of Season One, this is Diana’s most memorable line.
(But also, why? I mean, he’s just not that hot.)
A lot of stuff happens. Diana wins over Matthew’s vampire mother Ysabeau, which is an achievement, since Ysabeau’s idea of a vacation is jaunting over to South America and murdering hundreds of witches. (She holds a grudge.) We meet Diana’s magical house. Satu captures and tortures Diana. Diana makes the wind blow. Diana makes it rain. Diana shoots Juliette, Matthew’s fashion-model vampiric ex, with an arrow made of fire. Matthew discovers that it was not ignorant humans who murdered Diana’s witch parents, but Knox.
In Season Two, Matthew and Diana travel back to sixteenth-century England to retrieve the book and help Diana learn to master her now-unleashed powers. Back in 2021, the Congregation waits around like a group of Black Friday shoppers outside a shopping mall at 3:00 am, waiting for the two renegade creatures to pop back into the present world.
In Season One, I was more interested in the magical things than the magical people; the Ashmole book itself, Diana’s magical house, Gerbert’s witch-head-in-a-box and Knox’s nasty, humming rock that he uses to torture his own people. Satu is, if not an outright villain, at least Diana’s adversary, but when she frees the witch-head-in-the-box I started liking her. The characters generally were less compelling and more typical, especially Knox and Gerbert, very flat villains with little interest, and nothing except the plot drives Diana and Matthew into their supposedly world-changing love.
In Season Two, Diana grows a spine, and continues to win over everyone she meets except for that bad-boy playwright Kit Marlowe, who is a demon and crushes on original 16th century Matthew. While she learns to be Super-Witch, Matthew detours into dudebro-ing it with Marlowe, but eventually they grab the book, creating a geopolitical global incident in the process—although Queen Elizabeth I forgives Matthew for it later.
In the present a baby is born who seems to have special meaning, because her mother is a demon, except she was born of witches (wait, whaaat?), and “species” can’t cross pollinate; Matthew’s doctor vampire son Marcus starts dating a human named Phoebe, and Emily tries to contact the spirit of Diana’s dead mother with mixed success.
Clearly, the origin of the “species” is somehow a big part of this story even though except for a centrifuge and some test tubes, very little is said/done about it. Obviously, witches, demons and vampires are not separate anything, but they haven’t realized that. The single biggest question I had throughout both seasons involves neither Matthew nor Diana, but the demons. Why don’t the demons have any powers? Since they don’t have any powers, why are they part of the Congregation? This is way more interesting, and frustrating, than whether Diana gets all her powers and takes down Knox.
At the end of a total of eighteen episodes, I am left with only questions:
1) Why do the demons have no powers?
2) What happened to the whole “beware the witch of the lineage of the lion and the wolf” thing? (Oh, is it Satu? I hope it’s Satu!)
3) How come vaporettos, ferries, freighters and other boats don’t crash into the invisible island in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon?
4) Why is the meeting chamber of the Congregation so unpleasant? Would it kill the creatures to add comfortable meeting chairs? An espresso machine?
5) Why is Diana so in love with stiff-as-a-stick Matthew? Marcus is way hotter.
6) Why does Tudor-era superspy Matthew answer directly to Lord Burghley instead of Francis Walsingham? Seriously.
7) Since in present times, the missing book is called Ashmole 782, did anyone look in the actual Ashmolean Museum? I’m just saying.
8) Why are all the vampires and witches rich, but the demons working-class?
I’m guessing that fans of the books plunged right into this series and know, or have at least formulated, answers for all of these questions. For me though, the flattened characters and the haphazard worldbuilding left me unsatisfied and frustrated. I’ll only consider looking in on Season Three if the Magic House has a starring role.
Diana Bishop— Teresa Palmer
Matthew Claremont— Matthew Goode
Knox— Owen Teal
Ysabeau de Claremont— Lindsay Duncan
Aunt Sarah— Alex Kingston
Aunt Emily—Valerie Pettiford
Marcus— Edward Bluemel
Christopher Marlowe— Tom Hughes
Juliette— Elarica Johnson
Sophie (a demon)—Aisling Loftus
Phoebe—(a human)—Adele Leonce
At your first mention of the Magic House I thought *that* would be a character I’d want to see – and when I got to your last line I had to lol! Two votes for the Magic House as a main character.
I’d watch a spin-off of the show with the Bishop Magic House as the MC.