I don’t pre-order many books but I had The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness purchased at least a month before the release date. I spent the wait time rereading the first two books – A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night. Here’s a high-level synopsis of each book to lead us into the final installment.
A Discovery of Witches introduced us to Diana Bishop, a descendant of a storied line of witches, who eschews all magic. She is a historian studying the history of science, particularly the time when science transitioned away from magic via alchemy and into what we would now call ‘hard’ science. While working at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, she calls a manuscript from the stack that turns out to be a magical palimpsest. The alchemical drawings don’t use the standard symbols and several pages are missing. She sends the manuscript back into the stacks, not realizing the impact of her innocent act of opening the book.
Diana meets Matthew Clairmont at the library. He’s a vampire who studies genetics to learn more about vampires, witches and daemons. (Yup, there are daemons. More like highly intelligent, creative types than scary horned demons.) Against all odds – and the rules – they fall in love. Their relationship creates fear within the non-human population and puts them at danger, as does Diana’s ability to open the manuscript which is assumed to be the Book Of Life, the book that will explain the existence of these supernatural beings.
Shadow of Night takes Diana and Matthew back in time. Diana has learned she is a time-walker like her father and travels back to Elizabethan London with Matthew so she can study with older, stronger witches who will understand Diana’s unique brand of magic. They also want to find that manuscript before it was bewitched and put in the Bodleian Library.
If the first installment was Diana’s story, then Shadow of Night is Matthew’s. We are in a time when he existed, although not actually in London – that would be confusing. They move into Matthew’s home and meet with Matthew’s friends, who happen to be all of the writers and artists and intellectuals of that time. Matthew is called to meet his vampire father (who is dead in the first book) and introduces Diana.
The love story deepens in the second book. Diana becomes pregnant, against all odds, but loses the baby. She learns more about Matthew, seeing an entirely new side of him in this older century. Matthew realizes the full extent of Diana’s powers and supports her pursuance of education by the local coven. In a time when men must protect woman, Diana is vulnerable in certain situations and they must constantly adjust their modern sensibilities to the time while remaining close.
By the time they return, where The Book of Life begins, Diana is pregnant again with twins and the vampire and witch are married, closer than ever. A singularly aggressive act propels the final installment. Worlds collide as vampires, witches, daemons and humans work together to search for the Book of Life and figure out what it means. A war is coming that will divide those who stand by Diana and Matthew, and those who don’t. Family and friends have choices to make.
A new aggressor is Matthew’s vampire son, Benjamin Fuchs, who has been torturing and impregnating witches for centuries in an attempt to create a master race. Benjamin has the same ‘blood rage’ as Matthew, only he doesn’t fight it the way Matthew does. He has his eyes set on Diana once he learns she became pregnant by Matthew.
Harkness includes the expected depth of history and science in The Book of Life, as she did in the first two installments. Locations are conjured with efficiency. World events are grounded in reality (with some artistic license on the timeline, as often happens to include a particularly interesting event or person). The sections on alchemy and genetics may seem long to some but I found them fascinating. Diana is a layperson in Matthew’s scientific world and Matthew is a layperson in her history. Harkness made an excellent decision in rendering her two protagonists as opposites in many ways that help provide necessary moments of exposition (as opposed to exposition stuck because it has to be done).
Like the previous books, The Book of Life revolves around the themes of identity and family and choice and acceptance and love. These are weighty themes to consider but are made lighter and easier to digest in a fantastical version of the world. We root for Diana and Matthew to find a way to be together without everyone trying to keep them apart. We want to understand the fear that drives the hatred of their union. We want to know that we can be ourselves and still be loved. The All Souls Trilogy provides that solace. It is possible, just never easy.
These three books will remain on my shelves. I anticipate returning to them time and again when I want to remember that people are both vulnerable and strong, and the fight is worth it.