Last autumn, on the train home from London, I met a woman to whom I will forever be grateful though I will never know her name. I know she is blonde, hails from Leeds, enjoys Pinot Grigio, appreciates Renaissance art and has fantastic taste in literature. If this describes you then “Hiya” and “Cheers, love.” After a brief conversation over the lid of my lap top we ascertained our mutual appreciation of vampire fiction. She recommended two books I had never heard of: The Radleys by Matt Haigh and A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. Thank you twice over, Vamp-loving Renaissance Barbie from Leeds.
The Radleys deserves (and shall receive) a blog entry of its own. Who knew there was a vampire family living in Bishopthorpe, North Yorkshire? Ace! But this entry is devoted to Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy—a gem of trans-Atlantic fiction.
So far the trilogy is only a duet, starting with A Discovery of Witches. American Historian and reluctant witch Diana Bishop falls in love with 1500-year-old Anglo-Franco vampire Matthew Clairmont. Like other vampire romances the couple struggles with his urge to hunt her and her resistance to his possession. Unlike other undead couplings, Diana is a supernatural being in her own right (up yours, Bella). As if the differences in culture, history and geography were not enough to make their relationship difficult, an ancient organisation known as The Congregation forbids fraternisation between inhuman “Creatures”. Matthew and Diana’s love defies the bone deep, century old prejudices which separate vampires, witches and demons (the third supernatural species in Harkness’ world). And as if that weren’t enough, Diana’s mysterious connection to a legendary manuscript unleashes an army of enemies who want to understand her strangely potent magical powers and are more than happy to cut down Matthew and his family to get to her.
In Discovery of Witches, Harkness takes readers from Oxford to France to up-state New York with confident believability. The rich detail of her descriptions would make Thomas Hardy green with adjectival envy. I have never been a Hardy fan and found myself occasionally wishing the story would just get on with it and leave the details of the wine/food/countryside alone for just a paragraph or two. Harkness’ knowledge of science, history and the history of science mean that determined readers might require ready access to several textbooks if they want to unpick all the references in the books. Or you can just mutter: “damn she is one smart broad,” then skate over it to consume more tasty narrative.
As an ex-pat I particularly enjoyed the third act of the book which takes place in the haunted ancestral home of the Bishop witches in New York. The culture clashes between Europe and America intensified in the audio book performance as Jennifer Ikeda juggles accents with fair dexterity. Witch versus Vampire is nothing compared with Yankee versus French-born Oxford don.
But Discovery of Witches is just an appetiser for the rich meal that is Shadow of Night. Here Harkness shows us just how damned clever she is and just how deep her knowledge of history goes. In order to escape the clutches of the Congregation and solve the mystery of the strange manuscript, Diana uses witchcraft to time travel with Matthew to 1590. Their adventures encompass Oxford and France (again), then London and Prague. Characters include Christopher Marlowe, Queen Elizabeth, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II and tops it all off neatly by unveiling the true inventor of the telescope.
In Shadow of Night it is Matthew’s haunted ancestral home which provides the richest, most moving moments of the book. Diana and Matthew’s wedding gives readers who have followed their love story a dreamy romantic treat as does their long-awaited consummation. Every bittersweet moment with Matthew’s doomed father Phillipe climaxes in Diana’s assurance that she will find a way to be there for him in his darkest moments. Lovely, tingly stuff.
In Discovery of Witches, I often found the depth of her descriptions distracting, in Shadow of Night I could not get enough of it. Her vision of the sixteenth century is so clear I believe Harkness herself might be capable of time travel. These historical pages also explode with magic, mysticism and madness in a way I found imaginatively and intellectually satisfying. There are two basic reasons why I read: to escape into another world or to learn something about my own. With Harkness I do both.
The love story between Diana and Matthew grows in this second instalment of the trilogy. It is at times sweet, sexy, funny, horrific, infuriating and heartbreaking. There were times I genuinely wondered if the relationship would endure the many slings and arrows of brutal misfortune. There were times I wondered if I wanted it to. At all times their love story manages to be both truthful and transportive which is rare in fiction.
Shadow of Night is one of those can’t put it down but don’t want it to end books readers adore. I look forward to the conclusion of the trilogy which hopefully will be at least as long as the first two if not longer. I anticipate the planned film version with fear. The painful memories of Golden Compass and Hunger Games still sting. Time will tell.