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“The Book of Life” by Deborah Harkness


I’ve waited two years for this book to come out. It is the third and final book in the All Souls Trilogy. I loved the first two books: A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night. I must confess, though, that this one was a little disappointing in comparison. Not that it was bad; it was just not as good.

I have two main criticisms regarding this book. The first is that it felt drawn out. I kept waiting for something to happen. I found myself reading faster and faster just to reach the interesting parts. After about 300 pages, I was reading faster because I just wanted to finish already. I felt that this could have been incorporated into Shadow of Night by adding a mere 100 pages, but because publishers want trilogies now and it seems that every other book that comes out is part of a series. I suspect Ms. Harkness had to comply with her publisher’s demands and deliver the requisite pages. The second thing I found disappointing about this book is that it felt more like it belonged in the Twilight saga. It seemed to have less of the scholasticism, the history, and the rich description of cities that I found so engaging in the first two books. Instead, I suffered through pages of vampire/witch romance, which is really not that interesting for me. When the story finally moved to Venice, I was yearning for more description of the city and the architecture. I didn’t get it.

In spite of my disappointments, the book is still good, just not as good as her previous ones. There were parts of the book that were brilliant and I have nothing but admiration for Harkness as a writer. As such, I definitely want to point out some strong points in this book.

There is a great section that discusses dark magic. The term generally conjures images of evil and nefarious activity. But as the characters in the book explain, it is just representative of knowledge that is hidden and may be dangerous if mishandled.

“Dark doesn’t have to mean evil,” Sarah said. “Is the new moon evil?”

I shook my head. “The dark of the moon is a time for new beginnings.”

“Owls? Spiders? Bats? Dragons?” Sarah was using her teacher voice.

“No,” I admitted.

“No. They are not. Humans made up those stories about the moon and nocturnal creatures because they represent the unknown. It’s no coincidence that they also symbolize wisdom. There is nothing more powerful than knowledge. That’s why we’re so careful when we teach someone dark magic.” Sarah took my hand. “Black is the color of the goddess as crone, plus the color of concealment, bad omens, and death.”

(p. 140)

At one point in the book, Diana is discussing alchemical texts with a library assistant. As she points out, the difficulty in deciphering an alchemical text is that the writers blend the physical with the symbolic, making it near impossible to figure out what is literal and what is symbol.

“The Voynich manuscript’s illuminations of strange flora would certainly intrigue a botanist—not to mention the illumination of a tree from Ashmole 782. But why would an alchemist be interested in them?” Lucy asked.

“Because some of the Voynich’s illustrations resemble alchemical apparatus. The ingredients and processes needed to make the philosopher’s stone were jealously guarded secrets, and alchemists often hid them in symbols: plants, animals, even people.” The Book of Life contained the same potent blend of the real and the symbolic.

(p. 223)

Since Harkness is a professor at the University of Southern California, her best writing, in my opinion, is when she is depicting the analysis of documents. I can sense the academic thrill of closely examining a one-of-a-kind document.

Hubbard turned the page so that it faced me, but I already knew what I would see there: two alchemical dragons locked together, the blood from their wounds falling into a basin from which naked, pale figures rose. It depicted a stage in the alchemical process after the chemical marriage of the moon queen and the sun king: conceptio, when a new and powerful substance sprang forth from the union of opposites—male and female, light and dark, sun and moon.

(pp 252 – 253)

If I had to rate this book on a ten scale, I’d give it a seven. I think a lot of my disappointment was the result of the fact that my expectations were high. I cannot stress enough how much I loved the first two books, which was why I expected more from this one. I am also getting tired of the trilogy trend. Personally, I am feeling like I no longer want to read anything that is part of a trilogy. When I reach the end of a book, I want some closure. I don’t want to have to wait two or three years for the next installment, then struggle to remember the nuances of the characters and storyline. In fact, if I do decide to read a trilogy again, I will wait until all three books are out so I can read them one after the other.

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“A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness

A Discover of Witches is the first book of the “All Souls Trilogy.” The second book should be out later this year. I noticed it displayed on the “Staff’s Picks” table at a local bookstore and then discovered that my wife had a copy on her e-reader, so I decided to give it a read.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, although there were a couple things I found annoying, so I should probably get those out of the way first. To me, the whole I’m-in-love-with-a-vampire genre is really getting played out. At times, it felt like I was reading from the Twilight saga. Also, there were some cliches in the writing that made me cringe. Those criticisms aside, there were some aspects of the book that worked really well for me.

Probably the strongest aspect of the book is the way Harkness describes locations. She did this exceptionally well and I had no problem envisioning the settings, especially Oxford. Since I am such a bibliophile, I savored every sentence describing the university library. The other locations in the story were described with equally vivid detail.

Another thing the writer did that I found interesting was switching narrative voice from first person to third person (although the majority of the book was written in first person). It provided a level of depth to the story that would have been difficult to achieve without changing narratives. Anyway, this is not an easy thing to do as a writer, but she did it and did it well.

Finally, I enjoyed all the references to other books, writers, historical figures and events, and so forth. It left me thinking about other books that I need to read and reminiscing about books Id’ read years ago that I hadn’t thought about for a long time.

Without giving away the ending, I will say that the book ends at the perfect spot to set up for the next book in the series. I’m thinking I will read the next book. A Discovery of Witches, despite its couple flaws, was certainly engaging enough to make me want to find out what happens to the characters, and really, that’s the test of whether a book is good or not. If you find yourself invested in the story and curious about what becomes of the characters, then it is a book worth reading.


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