August 14, 2014
(++++) SOULS ABOUNDING
All Souls Trilogy, Book Three: The Book of Life. By Deborah Harkness. Viking. $28.95.
A sprawling conclusion to a sprawling trilogy that spans time as well as geography, The Book of Life is a satisfying but not wholly satisfying wrapup of a series that began with a truly outstanding novel (A Discovery of Witches) and continued with a lesser but still highly engaging one (Shadow of Night). Deborah Harkness’ first book detailed the discovery by historian Diana Bishop of a mysterious manuscript, Ashmole 782, at the Bodleian Library – and the further discoveries that 1) several pages of the book are missing and 2) the book as a whole is absolutely crucial in some unknown way to the daemons, vampires and witches of Diana’s world, including Diana herself (a witch, albeit initially a reluctant one). A Discovery of Witches soon became a paranormal romance between Diana and Matthew Clairmont (or de Clermont), a dashing vampire with a highly complex and tragic past and a thoroughly modern scientific expertise in genetics. The romance heated up in the second book, which found Diana and Matthew, now married, traveling in time back to 1590 to search for clues to the mysterious manuscript’s origin, importance and disfiguring. The second volume was an absolute delight for history lovers: Harkness, herself a historian, thoroughly indulged her predilections in introducing a huge cast of characters (real and imagined) and in limning the world of 16th-century Europe with marvelous detail that non-historians could be forgiven for finding, well, boring –or at least long-winded. The exploration of olden times was reason enough, depending on one’s personal interests, for reveling in the second book or becoming frustrated with the extent to which the descriptive material got in the way of advancing the plot.
Well, second books of trilogies do have a tendency to meander as they immerse the characters of first books deeply into the problems that third books are meant to resolve. So the flaws of Shadow of Night were at best ones associated with its placement in the All Souls Trilogy, at worst ones occasioned by Harkness’ overindulgence in a field she knows well and quite obviously loves. Indeed, the felicities of her historically oriented writing in the second book helped make up for some irritating plot elements, such as unexplained personality changes in Diana and Matthew that made them more one-dimensional and in many ways less interesting characters in the second novel than they were in the first.
Those stylistic felicities are largely absent in The Book of Life, which returns to plots and counterplots with a vengeance bordering on ferocity. The gigantic cast of characters is nearly 100% replicated for this conclusion, as Harkness makes a valiant attempt to follow not only the main plot and main relationship but also a whole series of subsidiary activities and interminglings of lives. This book makes sense only when read in conjunction with the other two – there is no value to entering Harkness’ fictional world for the first time here, and the author makes little attempt to recount earlier elements of the story, which in retrospect is really a single tale spanning some 1,500 pages (similar in this way, if in few others, to J.R.R. Tolkien’s original one-volume plan for The Lord of the Rings). Indeed, it sometimes seems that Harkness herself has forgotten some of the subjects introduced previously: for example, the secrets of vampire-witch interbreeding and of the search for Ashmole 782’s missing pages, which Diana and Matthew were at desperate pains to conceal in the first two books, are revealed entirely too casually, to entirely too many other characters, in the third. So what was all the fuss about? Still, Harkness by and large pulls the Bishop and Clairmont/de Clermont families into and through this conclusion adeptly: family trees and family connections are absolutely crucial to the events here. Readers will welcome the return, with increasing authorial attention, of such characters as Gallowglass (Harkness surely knows that the gallowglasses were elite mercenary Scottish warriors, but her character is a great deal more); Sarah, the matter-of-fact witch; and the icy Ysabeau. And they will very definitely welcome the birth of Diana’s twins, each of them half witch and half vampire – but, again, may wonder what all the fuss has been about when it turns out that there are other crossbreeds in the world.
What readers may not welcome is Harkness’ decision to make Matthew’s son Benjamin the prime evildoer of the story – an unexpected development (although not wholly unexpected) that would be more effective if Benjamin did not tend to speak in cartoonish-evildoer language that is a significant step below the otherwise crisp, well-thought-through dialogue in which Harkness generally excels. Benjamin’s vile actions are also overdone to such a degree that some of the power of intrafamiliar warfare is vitiated – besides which, Matthew’s dogged pursuit of his son becomes something of a distraction from the Diana-Matthew relationship that held the first two books together. For that matter, the frequently shifting points of view in the third book’s narration can make the narrative unnecessarily intricate, although Harkness apparently intends them to elucidate rather than complicate.
The eventual resolution of the Ashmole 782 mystery is somewhat puzzling. There is still much we do not know at the end about the book that started it all, including just who created it – which would seem to be an important piece of information. On the other hand, we do find out why the book matters so much and how it fits into the overall mythological framework within which, it turns out, the entire trilogy takes place. The mythology itself may not satisfy all readers – the goddess to whom Diana made a crucial promise earlier in the trilogy seemed like a dea ex machina at the time and seems to be even more of one here. But the books’ structure and events do make sense within the weltanschauung that Harkness provides toward the end of The Book of Life, and this, after all, is her world to create and explain.
Ultimately, The Book of Life proves itself a more-than-serviceable conclusion to a remarkably cogent and very well realized series that is part paranormal romance, part historical fiction and part intellectual adventure. Those are a lot of parts, and it is perhaps unreasonable to expect any author to balance them all satisfactorily and knit them all together seamlessly at the end. Harkness is in part the victim of expectations that she herself raised: A Discovery of Witches was so good, so intriguing and so out of the ordinary in its concepts and characters that it was a terribly hard act to follow. Harkness followed it well, partly by moving it in new and admittedly sometimes confusingly overdone directions, with Shadow of Night. With The Book of Life, she manages to get her entire story back on track and to bring it – and the tale of Diana and Matthew – to a logical and satisfying conclusion. That it is not an entirely compelling one, nor as stylishly written as some of what came earlier in the All Souls Trilogy, is the result in part of just how much Harkness has tried to do here – and in part of just how high and unfair were the expectations that she created by constructing such a marvelous story and such intriguing characters in the first place. It will be difficult for readers of the trilogy to say farewell to Diana and Matthew at the end of The Book of Life, especially in light of some questions that remain unanswered and some plot threads that are left hanging. But perhaps the not-fully-satisfactory leave-taking has two positive elements to it: 1) A work that leaves readers with plenty to discuss and debate afterwards is one that lives on in the imagination in ways that perfectly buttoned-up ones do not; and 2) A followup or companion work is certainly possible, although by no means assured – and if Harkness does contemplate one, there seems a distinct possibility that Gallowglass, in particular, will loom large in it.