Tag Archives: Deborah Harkness

“The Book of Life” by Deborah Harkness

BookOfLife

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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“Shadow of Night” by Deborah Harkness

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.

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