Harkness, Deborah. The All Souls Trilogy being A Discovery of Witches, (2011), Shadow of Night, (2012), The Book of Life. New York: Viking Penguin, 2014.
As you’ve probably noticed if you are a regular follower of my blog, most though not all of the books I review fall into the category of literary fiction. The others tend to be history, biography, theology and so forth. In other words, all rather serious works. You may have noticed that I also have a page on my blog that lists my “Not So Secret Diversions and Guilty Pleasures” where I list “Whodunnit” writers for the most part and the historical novels of Georgette Heyer. There is, I realise, a whole discussion about wherin lies the pleasure of reading, especially for someone whose occupation was to a great extent involved in professional reading of both literature and works about literature. Further, the whole distinction between serious and non-serious writing can be seen as false, but to enter that discussion would take me away from the focus of this post.
So how do I categorize my response to Deborah Harkness’ foray into fantasy fiction: a guilty pleasure or a not so secret diversion? I think I would say I wanted to see what happens when an academic discards the constraints of academia and writes, I presume, for the enjoyment of inhabiting the landscape of the mind that led her to her field of specialization in the first place. For most literature scholars, I suspect, if they have anything in common with me, the activity that propelled them to careers in literary studies was initially a love of words, of stories, of the world of fiction. For the historian, I imagine, the catalyst towards a career studying history must be a fascination with the past, and eventually with a particular period in the past.
Harkness’ teaches European History and the History of Science at USC, and her grasp on and love of her subject resonate through the three books of The All Souls Trilogy. Together, the three novels follow the relationship between Diana Bishop, a professor of history, and geneticist Matthew Clairmont. We realise we are in the realm of fantasy when we discover that Diana is resisting her own magical heritage as the last in a line of witches and Matthew is a vampire. Together, Matthew and Diana endeavour to discover and understand the secrets of Ashmole 782 an alchemical treatise that Diana is working with in the Bodleian and which appears to be bewitched.
By the end of the last novel The Book of Life, Diana has come to terms with her magical powers and the secrets of Ashmole 782 are revealed, but each novel stands quite well on its own. I’m not sure whether I would recommend reading all three as one long novel, though it could be done, but I would certainly urge reading them in sequence.
My only negative comment might be that at times I found the mood and tone of the books, particularly in The Book of Life, become a little too “romance novel” rather than historical fantasy. Matthew Clairmont does rather come out of central casting for the enigmatic, mesmerizing, gorgeous male, and then he is also immensely wealthy. There are private jets and castles. Of course, if you’ve had centuries to accumulate capital, you are likely to be rather more than financially comfortable, and as a vampire Matthew Clairmont has certainly lived long.
What I did enjoy greatly in Harkness’ three books was her ability to create a sense of time and place whether they be contemporary New England, Venice in winter, or late sixteenth century London. I liked the way she integrates the fantastic with the historic. While some knowledge of the history of alchemy and of occultism may well enable a reader to enter the world of The All Souls Trilogy more deeply than someone without such background, Harkness gives enough history and explanation to make her stories work, enabling us willingly to suspend our disbelief. The stories ring true.
It’s impossible not to compare Harkness with J. K. Rowling, for both writers posit a world where magic intersects with the mundane and where the world of magic creatures, in Harkness’ case witches, vampires, and daemons, exists with its own history, traditions, and laws, in parallel and intertwined with the mundane world of the twenty-first century. Where Harkness differs from Rowling is that her three books are very much books written for adults. While neither prurient nor overly graphic in detail, Harkness does not fear letting us know how satisfying sex with a vampire can be. My own sense, too, is that Rowling’s Harry Potter books, despite their ultimately hopeful resolution, have a more mythic, tragic mood than Harkness’ work.
While just about all the seven deadly sins are committed in the novels comprising The All Souls Trilogy, and both Matthew and Diana are faced with painful ethical dilemmas, ultimately, the books leave one with the satisfaction one feels after relaxation. The word “fun” appears in several of the reviews I read of the novels. And I suppose that is an appropriate word. One senses the author is having fun with what she knows and with sharing that knowledge with her readers. If you visit her website http://deborahharkness.com, you’ll see that there are lists of further reading if you are interested in finding out more about the historical and alchemical backgrounds to the novels. While the professor may leave the lecture hall for a while, what the professor cannot leave behind is the concern with accurate detail, the concern with sharing knowledge. I think those were the aspects of the novel that gave me the most pleasure: the sharing the enjoyment of delving into arcana just because it’s interesting not because a paper has to be published on it, the pleasure of dealing with well plotted and convincing stories, and the pleasure of imagining“what if . . . .”