One night in October, the witch Diana Bishop and her vampire husband Matthew Clairmont picked up their feet in the present day and landed in 1590 Elizabethan England. Diana and Matthew traveled to the past to try to unravel the mystery of Diana’s misbehaving powers and to locate the Ashmole 782 manuscript that just might have all the answers they’re looking for. But nothing is as simple as they thought it would be. Matthew is immediately drawn back in to his group of friends, the School of Night, as well as his shadowy work for his father and Queen Elizabeth. Modern and educated Diana stands out in the past and struggles to find someone to help her learn and accept her magic. With time travel, witchcraft, alchemy and espionage crashing into history – and potentially changing it – Diana and Matthew are in a race against time itself to find their answers and figure out how to get back to their own time.
I loved Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, but I kept putting off reading Shadow of Night because I knew I wouldn’t want to stop once I started. I also knew that once I finished this book, I would be left wanting since Harkness hasn’t completed the third and final book in the series yet. Ultimately, though, Shadow of Night was too irresistible to ignore and though I tried to prolong my reading, I inevitably found myself speeding through it, desperate to get to the next page and the next piece of the puzzle.
Shadow of Night, the second book in Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy, picks up where A Discovery of Witches left off and the pace doesn’t let up over the course of the 500-ish pages. Harkness manages to pack an impressive amount of action into the pages of this novel, as Diana and Matthew navigate life in Elizabethan England, try to find a witch to teach Diana and uncover the increasing mysteries of Ashmole 782. Shadow of Night is overwhelming at times, due to the sheer amount of stuff that happens. Every chapter, there’s another revelation, another bit of information revealed and uncovered. At times, it was hard to keep up with all the different threads of the story and much like the history, science and magic Harkness writes about, you only learn a little bit at a time and must then consider how each new thing fits within the context of what’s already known.
Once again, Harkness’ details shine, though this time they are heightened by the historical additions as well. As a historian herself, Harkness revels in the details of Elizabethan England and Europe. The images, scents and sounds she conjures up imbue the story with life. She also does a remarkable job of mixing the real pieces of history with her own story and takes great delight in reshaping real historical characters (Christopher Marlowe, Walter Raleigh, Henry Percy among them) to fit her story, while still staying true to what’s accepted as fact. In fact, the secondary characters are one of the best parts of this book. Harkness takes the time to draw out each character’s quirks and personality, from moody and mercurial Kit, to protective and crafty Gallowglass to the wise and sharp Goody Alsop.
At it’s core, Shadow of Night is about Matthew and Diana coming into their own. Matthew is provided with the opportunity to confront his secrets and his guilt over actions that will come, allowing him to make peace with his past into order to embrace his future. Diana learns to accept her magical heritage and wield it properly; she learns not to be afraid of her powers and to trust in herself. Together, they learn to rely on one another, to respect each other as equals and to come together as a team, to face whatever (or whoever) is waiting for them back in their own time. The mythology surrounding Ashmole 782 deepens and even though there aren’t as many answers as I would like, each chapter brings Diana and Matthew closer to discovering who (or what) they are individually, who they are together and what it all means for the creatures of the world.
My favorite part of Shadow of Night is Diana’s increased strength and sense of self. Pushed into a past she only understands superficially (despite her years of scholarly academics), Diana is forced into a subservient role she doesn’t like, but instead of accepting the status quo, she learns to fight for herself and stand up to Matthew (especially as he is even more domineering when acting as a Renaissance husband who expects obedience). I loved watching Diana learn to face her fears and finally embrace her magic wholeheartedly. It was thrilling to see to cautious, naive Diana from the first book morph into powerful, confident witch in her own right.
Considering all that Matthew and Diana must attempt to hide, given their knowledge of the future, I was surprised by how little they seemed to worry about their affect on the future, especially Diana the historian. We’re only given a few tantalizing glimpses of the present world, so we readers know very little about how Diana and Matthew’s behavior has changed their own time. The time travel aspect of the novel is probably the one part that wasn’t developed as much as the rest of the book. A word of advice: just go with it. Don’t spend too much time trying to figure out the science of it. Just accept that Harkness believes what’s she’s writing. If you try to figure out the logistics of the time travel, it won’t make a ton of sense and your enjoyment of the novel will diminish. Simply accept it as part of the story and move on. It’s easier that way.
Deborah Harkness’ Shadow of Night is a richly drawn, epic journey back in time that builds upon A Discovery of Witches and sets a frustratingly enticing stage for the third and final book. The All Souls Trilogy is going straight to the top of my list of the best books of 2012 and I cannot encourage you enough to read them for yourself. They may be long, but they are worth every word.
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