October 18, 2012


All Souls Trilogy, Book Two: Shadow of Night. By Deborah Harkness. Viking. $28.95.

      The second books of trilogies are notoriously hard to write. They have to pick up in the middle of things and end somewhere else in the middle of some other things, all while tying back to what has come before and hinting at what will come after, but without giving too much away or taking too much for granted in terms of readers’ memories of earlier events.  Shadow of Night is not quite as striking and brilliant as Deborah Harkness’ debut novel, A Discovery of Witches (whose title still remains unexplained as of the end of the new novel).  But there is more than enough of the Harkness erudition, writing style, and sure-handed plotting to make readers happy.

      Or almost enough.  A Discovery of Witches ended abruptly, with a real cliffhanger in which witch Diana Bishop and her husband, vampire Matthew Clairmont (or de Clermont), step into the past to try to solve the mystery of a manuscript called Ashmole 782 while keeping themselves alive – something that is in doubt after Diana’s horrifying capture and scarring by another witch and Matthew’s near-death at the hands of fellow vampires.  The two have transgressed and branded themselves by falling in love and marrying, this being forbidden by the Congregation, the nine-member group charged with enforcing the Covenant under which the three supernatural species (witches, vampires, daemons) do not intermingle in matters of procreation.

      Shadow of Night picks up exactly where the first book left off, and many readers may need to go back to the earlier volume to figure out just what is going on, since Harkness rehashes the first novel only sparingly and incompletely.  No wonder: even in a book of nearly 600 pages, she barely has enough space to include all the new things that happen and all the new people they happen to, much less to go over what has occurred already.  Nevertheless, some readers will be thrown by the abrupt start of this book, and others by its relatively slow pace once it does get started: Harkness is a history professor, clearly adores her subject, and wastes no time in getting into minute details of life in the year 1590 – which does waste time in terms of getting back to the plot.

      Still, the writing is so good, the descriptions of everyday events in the 16th century so well done, and the characterization of famous people with whom Matthew (who is 1500 years old) is on close terms is so intriguing that readers will be swept into the story even if it is not the story they were led to expect.  Christopher Marlowe, Henry Percy, George Chapman and other noted Elizabethans make their appearance almost at once, their doings intermingled with those of a host of fictional characters and some that are both fictional and nonfictional – including Matthew himself, who as Clairmont is a fiction but as Roydon in Elizabethan times is known to real-world history.  Harkness, in fact, does a better job of spell-weaving than does Diana.  And therein lies a point worth making: the characters around Matthew and Diana are here often more interesting than Matthew and Diana themselves, who seem to have undergone personality transplants.  Matthew, in particular, has changed from self-assured and urbane to indecisive and impulsive.  Diana, for her part, has become somewhat shrewish, as when she remarks, “So far Matthew’s hasty decisions had not worked out well”; “There were times when Matthew behaved like an idiot – or the most arrogant man alive”; and, even more bitingly, “Matthew was taking charge, which meant that things were about to take their usual turn for the worse” – a statement that, for all its, umm, witchiness, is justified in this book as it was not in the prior one.

      Yet the book still enchants, and it does move the story ahead, albeit in fits and starts.  Readers will learn whether Matthew and Diana can in fact conceive a child; they will find out the nature of Diana’s powers (although the implementation of those powers is not entirely clear); they will discover just what the goddess Diana took from Diana Bishop in allowing her to save Matthew’s life; and, yes, they will find out what was in the three missing pages of Ashmole 782 and why the book was broken.  As these bits and pieces are dribbled out here and there, the action flits back and forth between the 16th century and the 21st, in the latter of which the Congregation is trying to prevent Matthew and Diana from accomplishing their objectives while the Conventicle is trying to help them succeed (or make sure they have succeeded: language gets twisted when time travel is involved).

Shadow of Night is somewhat overly complicated, lacking the straightforward (although highly involved) narrative force of A Discovery of Witches.  Indeed, readers would be well advised to start the new book at the very end, where Harkness thoughtfully provides a part-by-part list of the characters in Shadow of Night and indicates which are “acknowledged by historians” (although not necessarily as Harkness portrays them!).  The book does indeed end right in the middle of a set of new things, and readers exhausted by the complexities of its structure may breathe a sigh of relief just before they start feeling frustrated by all the things that Harkness has left hanging while exploring the 16th century in such detail and with so much authorial enjoyment.  It will be very interesting indeed to see whether the final volume of the All Souls Trilogy is written in the dramatic-adventure style of the first book or the wider-ranging and more discursive one of Shadow of Night – or perhaps in a style entirely different from that of either Book One or Book Two.  Harkness is a remarkably skilled and entertaining writer, quite capable of turning a simple sentence into a tension-relieving, laugh-out-loud moment: “Gallowglass returned to Sporrengasse with two vampires and a pretzel.”  If she seems to have entertained herself in Shadow of Night a bit more than strictly necessary, after entertaining and intellectually stimulating her readers quite thoroughly in A Discovery of Witches, she has certainly earned the right to some sheer enjoyment of revamped (pun intended) and reinterpreted history.  In fact, it was probably inevitable in Book Two that Harkness would indulge herself a bit: she is a scholar of the work of John Dee (1527-1608 or 1609), and how could she resist dwelling on the time in which Dee lived and giving him a role in her story?  In fact, Harkness herself discovered, in the real-world Bodleian Library, a long-lost treatise on magic that Dee once owned.  In a world only slightly different from ours, that book could have been Ashmole 782.  How could Harkness not revel in that slightly different world?

Her challenge in Book Three, though, will be the usual one encountered in the final book of any trilogy: to pull all the threads of the earlier books together and provide a satisfactory and satisfying conclusion.  And Harkness will face an additional challenge as well: to find the right style in which to deliver the knitting-together and summing up.  The evidence of Books One and Two is that she will succeed, and readers will be richer (and much better informed about history) as a result.

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