Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness is the second book in the All Souls Trilogy. I read the first book, A Discovery of Witches, a while back and loved it (click here to read my review of that book), so when this book came out, I immediately bought it. I did, though, have to wait for my wife to read it first.
The book is set in Elizabethan England where the two protagonists, a witch and a vampire, have traveled back in time to locate a mysterious book. Since Harkness is a history professor at the University of Southern California, she is able to weave in historical events and descriptions of the period in a way that really brings the tale to life. As a historian, she focuses on details that I would not have considered important; for example, she explains that the characters in the story wrote personal records and journals in shorthand as a way to conserve paper and ink, which were scarce and expensive during that time. As a result, historians pored over these records trying to piece together fragments of history (p. 41). I found facts like this fascinating.
The tale itself is steeped in magic and the occult. Many of the characters are historical figures from that time who were magicians, witches, alchemists, and so forth. These characters include John Dee, Christopher Marlowe, Edward Kelly, and many others. Harkness asserts that there is a parallel between magic and history: “the practice of magic was not unlike the practice of history. The trick to both wasn’t finding the correct answers but formulating better questions” (p. 340).
The story changes narrative voice throughout the book, which keeps it interesting. The majority of the narrative, though, is presented as first person through Diana. Diana is an accomplished, strong, and self-reliant woman in current times, but when she finds herself in Elizabethan England, she must act in the subservient manner which was expected of a woman. This creates a great dynamic. There is a line that succinctly expresses how it must have been for women in that period: “We women own nothing absolutely, save what lies between our ears” (p. 271).
Books are strange things. Often, when I am going through something in my life or contemplating an issue, the right information will make itself known through a book I am reading. This happened to me while reading Shadow of Night. I had been discussing empathy with some friends in the wake of the recent election and then came upon this passage: “Empathy is the secret to most things in life–including magic” (p. 530). This resonated with me on such a deep level that it almost seemed magical that the words were presented to me at the time.
I could easily write more about this book, because it is really that good. But, since I hate to put spoilers into my posts, I’ll stop here. I will say that I highly recommend this book (and the first one in the series). I am already itching for the third book. When it comes out, I’ll be sure to read it before my wife gets a hold of it.