Book Two of the All Souls Trilogy
By Deborah Harkness
Available now from Viking (Penguin)
Deborah Harkness's debut novel A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES made a big splash last year. I loved that it used aspects of one of my favorite rare subgenres - one that doesn't even have a name. I like to call it hard fantasy, as in hard sci-fi, since it's fantasy wherein the rules of magic are based on cutting-edge science. Then, it ended with a cliffhanger! I'm sure everyone who read A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES is eager to read SHADOW OF NIGHT and find out what Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont got up to after traveling back in time.
Diana and Matthew need to find the alchemical manuscript Ashmole 782 and a teacher to help Diana control her witchly powers. They also need to evade censure for their forbidden relationship, since cross-species relationships are forbidden and this witch and vampire consider themselves married. Even worse, Diana does not blend into the past. Her accent is wrong, her stride is wrong, and she is entirely too unwilling to defer to her husband, to his chagrin. Luckily, Matthew has powerful friends in the past who are willing to help him keep Diana safe until she can blend in.
I'm not a big historical fiction fan, but I did like playing spot-the-historical-cameo. (There's a dramatis personae in the back that says which characters are based on real people.) I also liked that SHADOW OF NIGHT periodically shifts focus from Diana and Matthew to reveal what's happening in the present and how their actions in the past are creating anomalies. And, well, I always love time-travel books that dwell on how hard it would be to live in the past. (See THE STERKARM HANDSHAKE.)
However, SHADOW OF NIGHT took awhile to get moving. Diana and Matthew face realistic obstacles, but it's a bit frustrating that they make little-to-no progress in two clear-cut goals during the first half of the novel. Being in the past also exacerbates Matthew's worst quality, trying to control Diana's life and make her decisions for her. I did enjoy a meta-passage about popular romance novel tropes in which Diana makes fun of how much Matthew is like the fictional dominating vampires. (Although it made me suspect that while Harkness knows her novels share DNA with paranormal romance, she doesn't realize just how much.)
I suspect that SHADOW OF NIGHT will be difficult reading for anyone who hasn't read A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES. Harkness's world is detailed and little information about the three types of creatures or their politics is repeated for new readers. Plus, the first book had a large cast and SHADOW OF NIGHT introduces even more players. Since the original cast is banished to interludes, there's little time to explain who everyone is.
I do, however, think young adult readers will enjoy A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES and SHADOW OF NIGHT. They present a slightly more literary take on the girl-meets-vampire story. The All Souls trilogy will be of particular interest to anyone with an academic bent. Diana is a historian and Matthew is a scientist and Harkness's own background allows her to write their scholarly mindset with authority. I recommend Leila of Bookshelves of Doom's Alchemy reading list for those needing some YA pairings to go with Harkness's novels.