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Friday, March 11, 2011

Deborah Harkness: ALL SOULS TRILOGY

Author:  Deborah Harkness 
Plot Type: Historical Soul-Mate Romance (SMR)
Publisher and Titles:  Viking 
        A Discovery of Witches (2/2011)
        Shadow of Night (7/2012)
        The Book of Life (7/2014) (FINAL)

     This post was revised and updated on 8/23/14 to include a review of The Book of Life, the third and FINAL novel in the series. That review comes first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first two novels.

        NOVEL 3:  The Book of Life         
     In the first novel of this series, Diana Bishop, a witch who is a Yale history professor, and Matthew Clairmont, a centuries-old vampire who is an Oxford biochemist, meet cute at Oxford's Bodleian Library where Diana discovers a long-lost magical book that has great meaning to the supernatural world (i.e., vampires, daemons, and witches). Unfortunately, three crucial pages are missing, and that sets up the story arc for the rest of the trilogy. The romance between Diana and Matthew begins in that first book and continues into the next, where they travel back in time to the 1590s, get the blessing of Matthew's father, and marry. In that second book, Diana learns how to live in Elizabethan times and meets Matthew's friends and family. By the end of book 2, Diana has located one of the pages of the book and has gotten deeply involved in the Byzantine politics of the de Clermont family and the supernatural world in general. Before beginning this final book, I recommend that you take a quick look at the annotated character list on Harkness's web site. In this review, I will be referring to several supporting characters, so that character list will come in handy to refresh your memory as to their species and their roles in the series. (Too bad the publisher didn't include the character guide in this book.)

     As this final book begins, it is almost exactly one year since Diana and Matthew first met, and they are now are back in the 21st century, dealing with family feuds, demands from the Congregation, and the ups and downs of their own relationship. Diana is searching for the final two missing pages and trying to figure out how she can get her hands on the original Book of Life. Matthew is still working on a cure for his blood rage, and in this book he and Miriam team up with Diana's Yale colleague, Chris Roberts, and his group of brainy students to use modern DNA methods and technology to attack the problem. Meanwhile, family politics and Congregation politics rage on in the background, and a new enemy reappears from the past: Matthew's psychotic son, Benjamin. Oh yes…I almost forgot: Diana is now pregnant with twins, so you would be correct in predicting that there is a major birthing scene towards the end of the book.

     So...Diana's basic "to-do" list for this book includes the following: Stay healthy for the babies. Find the missing pages. Deal with Matthew's overbearing protective behavior. Help Sarah deal with her grief at losing Emily (and deal with her own grief at the same time). Stand up to Matthew's brother, Baldwin, head of the de Clermont family, when he tries to order her around. Gather support from fellow witches to help with the book search. Keep her status as a weaver secret for as long as possible. Save Matthew from both his blood rage and from his evil son (although it's really Matthew's fault that Benjamin is so evil).

     The final book in a trilogy is always difficult, both for the writer and the reader. Thankfully, I was quite happy to find this book to be the best in the series. The two earlier books contained so much scholarly detail that the plots tended to drag, but this one moves along at a fast pace as the de Clermont family situation explodes and the couple's enemies push the Congregation towards a showdown that could result in severe punishment or even death for Diana, Matthew, and their children. 

     Even with the darkness of the main plot, this book is much more humorous that the previous volumes. For example, when Fernando decides that Sarah needs a new diet and exercise plan, her sentient house helps him out: "One morning we woke to find that all the liquor in the house had been dumped down the sink and a makeshift mobile of empty bottles and silverware was attached to the kitchen light fixture…From that moment my aunt and the house were in an all-out battle for supremacy." (p. 148) Chris Roberts is the source of much of the humor. He isn't impressed by or afraid of Matthew or any other vampire and has little patience with formalities. He creates nicknames for all his students (e.g., Game Boyfor a female gamer, Mulder, Skully, Beaker) and when he writes a job description for a new lab manager, he lists "Mother Teresa or Mussolini" as the qualifications. In a sly jab at the Twilight series, Matthew concludes his introduction of himself to Chris's students by saying, "I do not, nor have I ever, sparkled." (p. 196)

     Although I enjoyed the action-filled main story lines, I wish that the two major showdown sceneswith the Congregation and with bad-boy Benjaminhad not been so rushed. The build-ups to both were lengthy and suspenseful, but when each finale arrived, it was over and done with in just a page or twomuch too quickly and easily. One other plot element that is bothersome is the one in which the goddess warns Diana, "You will have to give something up if you want to possess the Book of Lifesomething precious to you." (p. 370) Of course, my imagination went wild on that one: Will she have to sacrifice one of her friends? Give up Matthew? Give up her witchy powers? Well…when you read the big "reveal" of the "something precious," you will probably feel the same way I did: deceived and disappointed. 

     It's been two years since the second book, so when I began reading, I soon became swamped by the rapid introduction of characters in the early chapters. This is where Harness's character page is most helpful. Another story section that slowed me down was the part near the middle that deals in great detail with Matthew, Miriam, and Chris's research on mitochondrial DNA. Don't feel bad about skimming over that part quickly because it isn't very long and you really don't need that information to appreciate the rest of the story. Actually, I think that Harness has, for the most part, done a better job of blending scholarly details and flat-out fiction in this book than in the previous two novels.

     As the publisher's blurb states, Harkness's themes for the series include "power and passion, family and caring, past deeds and their present consequences." Other themes include the power and strength of diversity and the melding of ancient knowledge with modern scientific techniques. Harness is a good story teller, and she ties up her trilogy nicely, with just a few minor bumps along the way. Harkness's descriptions of Diana's burgeoning weaver powers are eloquently written, and her portrayal of Matthew's angst over the widespread effects of his blood rage is filled with heartbreaking emotion. If you are looking for a slightly different, and more literary, approach to paranormal romance, you might want to give this series a try. Click HERE to read an excerpt from The Book of Life.  

     In this world, witches, vampires, and daemons live among humans but hide their true natures. The supernatural world is ruled by the nine-member Congregation, which was established primarily to keep otherworldly creatures from the attention of humans. The Congregation has strict rules forbidding inter-species conjugal relationships: "The ancient promises made among daemons, vampires, and witches prohibited meddling in human politics or religion and forbade personal alliances among the three different species. Witches were meant to keep to themselves, as were vampires and daemons. They were not supposed to fall in love and intermarry." (Shadow of Night, Chapter 1)

     Vampires in this world have few of the traditional characteristics. Here, Matthew Clairmont, the series hero, describes himself: "I can go outside during the day and my hair won't catch fire in the sunlight. I'm Catholic and have a crucifix. When I sleep, which is not often, I prefer a bed to a coffin. If you try to stake me, the wood will likely splinter before it enters my skin...No fangs either." (The Book of Life, p 196) These vampires can eat regular food, but they also need to ingest human blood.

     Each supernatural species dislikes and distrusts the others, and this makes for lots of backbiting, intrigue, and inter-species violence. The lead couple—a female witch and a male vampire—fall in love early in book 1 and soon have the Congregation hunting them down. The witches have their own governing council, called the Rede. The Rede tries to keep the witches' affairs in order so that the Congregation doesn't have reason to get involved.

     Click HERE to go to an annotated character list for the series.

        NOVEL 1:  A Discovery of Witches         
    In her Acknowledgments, Harkness says, "...this is a book about books."  And so it is. But it is also a book about paranormal lust at first sight, illustrated here by our heroine's thoughts when she first lays eyes on our hero:

     "As my eyes swept over him, his own were fixed on as night, staring up under thick, equally black eyebrows, one of them lifted in a curve that suggested a question mark. His face was indeed striking—all distinct planes and surfaces, with high-angled cheekbones meeting brows that shielded and shadowed his eyes. Above his chin was one of the few places where there was room for softness—his wide mouth....But the most unnerving thing about him was not his physical perfection. It was his feral combination of strength, agility, and keen intelligence that was palpable across the room. In his black trousers and soft gray sweater, with a shock of black hair swept back from his forehead and cropped close to the nape of his neck, he looked like a panther that could strike at any moment but was in no rush to do so." (p. 9)

     If you've read even one paranormal romance, you've read a version of this paragraph. The author is a history professor, and she lards her story with interesting bits of history about alchemy, about Darwin, and about witches, but the main thread follows the blossoming romance between centuries-old vampire Matthew Clairmont and witchy history professor, Diana Bishop. Their story can be summarized like this: beautiful, smart, independent, magically talented modern woman with a troubled childhood falls for handsome, rich, moody, ancient vampire with centuries of secretsin other words, the formula for modern paranormal romance.

     You may recognize Diana's surname; she is the last descendant of the infamous Bishop witches of the Salem witch trials.  In addition to being a renowned biochemistry researcher specializing in DNA analysis, Matthew has always been a warrior, from the Crusades to the American Revolution to World War II. In fact, he heads up an ancient order of supernaturals that has connections to the Knights Templar. Matthew tracks down Diana at the Oxford University's Bodleian Library because he has overheard some witches talking about Diana's discovery of an ancient book (Ashmole 782) that was believed to have been lost centuries ago. This book has great meaning for the three supernatural species of this world: vampires, witches, and daemons.  Each group believes that the book holds the key to their history and to their survivalkind of an Origin of Species for supernaturals.

     The initial plot line follows the search for the book and for its three missing pages. The primary story line, however, focuses on the love story. This is, after all, a paranormal romance. In this world, the supernaturals maintain an uneasy alliance in order to keep the humans (warmbloods) from learning of their existence. One of their main rules is that there will be absolutely no interspecies relationships. Oops! Here comes the conflict. No one wants Diana and Matthew to find their HEA ending—at least no one on the corrupt and murderous Congregation, the supernatural governing council.

     One of the most common traits in paranormal heroines is the development of their magical powers, and this heroine is no exception. All her life, Diana has refused to use her magic, wanting instead to live a "normal" life, to achieve her goals with only her human talents. Now, however, her powers are emerging but she is unable to control them because she has never been trained. Another commonality among paranormal heroines is the loss of parents. Diana's parents—both powerful witches—were murdered when she was a child, and she was raised by her aunt, also a witch. Diana's parentage (of course) plays an important role in the story.

     Supporting characters include Diana's Aunt Sarah and her life partner, Emily; Matthew's vampire family (mother, brother, and son); Matthew's vampire assistant, Miriam; and Matthew's best friend, the daemon Hamish. The villains include  mostly vampires and witches. One problem with the villains is that they are all one-dimensional. The only time we see them is when they are sneering at the hero or beating up the heroine. They have no complexity—no redeeming characteristics at all—and this weakens the story.

     Diana tells the story in most of the book, with Harkness succeeding at using the tricky first person voice. In some chapters, Harkness uses the third person omniscient voice to give us a look at Matthew's interactions with characters other than Diana. Harkness's choice of voice is probably the reason for her villain's lack of real character, since we never see anything from their perspective.

     All of the characters, in fact, are either all good or all bad. Never a good thing. If you want to read stories about witches that include complex villains with life stories that make them hard to hate, try Kim Harrison's HOLLOWS series. Harrison's plots have more action, more angst, and more complexity.  Of course, HOLLOWS is pure urban fantasy—not paranormal romance—so maybe I'm being unfair.

     One other point: Harkness is a wine aficionado. In fact, she has her own wine blog and even includes a page on her web site entitled Matthew Clairmont's Wine Cellar. This translates into many, many wine-drinking scenes in her book, with an overflow of details about the wine's bouquet, taste, and history—interesting, but sometimes more info than the average reader really needsor wantsto know.

     Here's an odd literary connection: At one point, late in the book, I got a spooky feeling that Harkness was channeling the scenes in Stephen King's The Stand, when all of the good guys gather in Boulder to get ready to battle Randall Flagg's Las Vegas villains. In this book, though, they're showing up one by one at Aunt Sarah's house in upstate New York.

     Harkness tells a compelling story, and her historical touches add to the richness. This is not the best paranormal romance on the bookshelf, but it's not the worst, either. The ending is a cliffhanger, so there will probably be a second book. I'm looking forward to more scenes with Matthew's mother and brotherboth interesting characters in their own right.  

        NOVEL 2:  Shadow of Night         
     As the story opens, Matthew and Diana have just time-traveled from 21st-century America to 1590s England. As Matthew summarizes, "We're here for only two find you a teacher and to locate that alchemical manuscript if we can." (Chapter 1) The story is divided into sections, each one following the couple's activities as they travel from one place to another in their attempts to complete their tasks. First, they land at Woodstock, Mathew's lodge, where they meet up with Matthew's old friends Sir Walter RaleighChristopher MarloweGeorge ChapmanThomas Harriot, and Henry Percy. This opening section does little to move the story along and seems to have been been included primarily to allow Harkness (through Diana's voice) to acquaint the reader with the culture, life styles, and, especially, the famous personalities of Elizabethan England. Then, they head for Matthew's French family estate—Sept-Tours—home of Philippe de Clermont, Matthew's father, where Philippe accepts Diana as his daughter and the couple gets marriedvampire style. Next, it's back to England—London this time—for a visit with Queen Elizabeth. Then comes a short trip to Prague and a string of interactions with the randy King Rudolf who takes a fancy to Diana. And finally, back to London to make their good-byes and head back to the present. Along the way Diana learns the truth about her witch powers and learns how to control them. The couple also regains possession of the ancient grimoire (Ashmole 782).

     The story is heavy with descriptions of day-to-day Elizabethan life, which is interesting but could have been edited down quite a bit. Alchemy also plays a large part in the story, with lengthy, explicitly described scenes in an alchemy laboratory. I must admit that I tended to skim over those scenes very quickly because I found them to be weighed down by overly technical information (way more than I needed to know) about the intricacies of alchemy.

     Once again, Diana tells the story in the first person, but Harkness never varies Diana's tone. Her level of emotion rarely changes, whether she is describing a gut-wrenching life event or discussing an everyday trip to the market. It's hard to connect with Diana emotionally because we really never get a good look inside her head.

     The constant appearance of famous people as characters gets old before the end of the first chapter, and their appearances do little to enhance the story line. In fact, the non-famous supporting characters (e.g., the young witch Annie, the street urchin Jack, Matthew's irrepressible nephew Gallowglass, and the kind old witch Goody Alsop) were much more interesting than the famous ones. The basic feel of the story is that of a teacher instructing her readers on the fine points of day-to-day Elizabethan life—in other words, it tends toward being dry and didactic.

     The author resorts to a deus ex machina technique the single time that she puts Diana in real physical danger. It's as if Harkness reached out in desperation for some action to liven up a relatively static plot. In that scene, the villain appears out of nowhere to team up with a traitor from Matthew's stable of friends. This scene comes up quickly and without warning (although it is telegraphed plainly as soon as the traitor talks Diana into a TSTL moment in which she goes off with him alone).

     The relationship between Matthew and Diana is strangely dispassionate. If you will recall, they confine themselves to hugs and kisses and other nonintrusive sexual activities in book 1, and that lack of intimacy continues through the first chapters of book 2. They do finally have a brief interlude of real passion after their wedding at Sept-Tours. But after a heart-breaking episode in their lives, Matthew adopts a hands-off, no-touching attitude for many weeks. Does Diana brood about this? Not much—because when she does refer to her sad sexual situation, she just mentions off-handedly that Matthew hasn't touched her in weeks. Then she's off on another cultural description—maintaining the same matter-of-fact tone. Even when Diana learns that Matthew has been keeping many dark and important secrets from her, she still responds in that same indifferent manner. She thinks, "Under Matthew's smooth surface, a profound metamorphosis was taking place....Scientist. Vampire. Warrior. Spy...Prince. I wondered what more our journey would reveal about this complex man I had married." (Chapter 8) For Diana, that brief thought represents the depth of angst—or non-angst—that she reveals throughout the book.

     Overall, I found the story lacking in both dramatic tension and personal emotion. The best chapters are those at Sept-Tours with Philippe and those in London where Diana interacts with the witches and with the people in her household. For me, book 1 was a better story because it dealt more with the personal side and less with the history lesson..

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