Deborah Harkness – Shadow of Night

It began with A Discovery of Witches.

Historian Diana Bishop, descended from a line of powerful witches, and long-lived vampire Matthew Clairmont have broken the laws dividing creatures. When Diana discovered a significant alchemical manuscript in the Bodleian Library, she sparked a struggle in which she became bound to Matthew. Now the fragile coexistence of witches, daemons, vampires and humans is dangerously threatened.

Seeking safety, Diana and Matthew travel back in time to London, 1590. But they soon realise that the past may not provide a haven. Reclaiming his former identity as poet and spy for Queen Elizabeth, the vampire falls back in with a group of radicals known as the School of Night. Many are unruly daemons, the creative minds of the age, including playwright Christopher Marlowe and mathematician Thomas Harriot.

Together Matthew and Diana scour Tudor London for the elusive manuscript Ashmole 782, and search for the witch who will teach Diana how to control her remarkable powers…

Last year’s first instalment in the All Souls trilogy, A Discovery of Witches, grabbed my attention because of its bookishness. Starting out as it did in the Bodleian Library and centring on an ancient manuscript it had everything to snare my librarian heart. It retained my attention by exuding a love of history and books and telling a good story throughout. Though I had my doubts about its focus on the romance between Diana and Matthew, which reminded me a bit of the oft-lamented YA trope of insta-love, in the end I thoroughly enjoyed myself with that first tale of Diana Bishop and her vampire love Matthew Clairmont. So I was looking forward to returning to their story and see what would happen next.

And it was a pleasure to return to Matthew and Diana. Shadow of Night didn’t suffer from second book syndrome, mostly because it seemed to be set in a totally different genre. If A Discovery of Witches was a romantic fantasy novel, its successor seemed more a historical novel, albeit with some serious fantasy threads tied in. The focus of the story moves away from the relationship angle and more towards Ashmole 782, Diana’s powers and the history and relationships between the different creatures. That isn’t to say that no attention is given to the relationship between Diana and Matthew, but it’s not as central to the story as in the first book. I loved the closer look we got at Diana’s powers and the different talents witches can possess. Diana’s hunt for the Ashmole manuscript also lead her to do more alchemical research, which I enjoyed, especially since there is more focus on the philosophies underpinning alchemy, and not on turning lead to gold.

Harkness’ London feels real and well researched. Set in 1590, in the latter part of Elizabeth I’s reign, we get a great look at Tudor London in all it its glories and its grubbiness. We not only get a close look at Elizabethan London, but also at Elizabethan society, ranging from the regular inhabitants of the Blackfriars to the great and well-known of the age, such as Kit Marlowe, Walter Raleigh, William Shakespeare and even Queen Elizabeth herself. Harkness captured Diana’s reactions to meeting all the greats she’s studied for so long exquisitely, from jaw-dropped fascination to at times almost disappointment at the truth behind the history. The author is wise enough not to milk Diana’s wide-eyed enchantment at seeing her studies come to life for too long, however, and just gets on with the story relatively quickly, which is fortunate as it keeps it from becoming gimmicky. We don’t just get a look at London though; we also follow Diana and Matthew to Prague, to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who was historically well known for his interest in the occult. I found this visit fascinating and Harkness’ portrayal of Rudolf to be one of a highly unpleasant individual.

Harkness handling of the time-travel aspect of the story was also deft. Just at the point where I was wondering what happened to the 16th-century Matthew and whether they couldn’t run into him, the answer was provided (he’s displaced, where-to isn’t quite clear) and any lasting material changes they leave behind, such as a pair of miniatures and a diary are hunted down by Matthew’s family in the present-day, which also allows us to catch-up with some of the characters of the prior novel. However, we only see them in short flashes and it’s clear that some important things have happened in their time line we haven’t seen, which definitely have repercussions in the next book. I liked this; it seemed more real that events moved along, even if the main focus of the story was set in the past.

Harkness populates Shadow of Night with a varied and strong cast of characters. In addition to our main characters, Diana and Matthew, we meet mostly new characters in this novel. Not just many historical characters, but we are also introduced to several other creatures, such as Matthew’s nephews Gallowglass and Hancock, young witch Annie and the street urchin Jack, who all become part of the Roydon household in London. While some of these connect to characters from the present, Annie’s aunt Susanna, for example, is related to Sophie, and others will still be alive in our present, such as Gallowglass, there are even more of them who feel significant and aren’t linked to the future. Most notably, little Jack, who Matthew and Diana practically adopt, I’m hoping we’ll find out his fate in the next instalment. The historical cameo’s, such as those of Queen Elizabeth and Lord Burghley are very cool, and again, it’s fun to see how Harkness creates an alternative reality in which humans are not the only creatures to inhabit our world and decides who in history did and didn’t know about their existence—Elizabeth naturally knew.

This strong cast has to be led by strong protagonist and in Diana we definitely have one. She’s smart, independent and assertive. She can take care of herself, even if she’s woefully ignorant of how to use her magic and seems to charge into dangerous situations headlong. She doesn’t take any non-sense from anyone, especially Matthew; he might be a centuries-old, superhumanly strong and dangerous vampire, but by Jove, he’s her husband and he’ll act as such. And if he’s jealous and possessive because he’s a vampire and she his mate, she understands, but he’ll just have to deal with it and suck it up, because she’s got to lead her own life. Suck on that, Bella! Matthew, for his part, literally has to face his past in Shadow of Night and while this allows some of his heart wounds to be healed, he still has a difficult time of it. What  really liked is how Harkness manages to convey that even if Matthew the vampire is immortal and will always look as he did when he was turned, his growth of in spirit isn’t like-wise stagnant. I found it very well done how modern Matthew partly fell back into his behavioural patterns of the time, but at the same time can’t view the course of events and people around them the same way as he did when he first lived through them.

As expected, the end of the book means the end of our sojourn in 1590 and I was sad to leave it. However, I’m looking forward to see how the third book differs in tone from this one and even more how it will differ from the first one. Shadow of Night is very different from A Discovery of Witches, in both form and cast, and I honestly found it a better read than its predecessor. Harkness has found her footing and her voice more strongly in this second novel, I feel, and that promises a lot for the future. Shadow of Night is a strong second novel in the All Souls trilogy and this series is shaping up to be a very good paranormal fantasy series. The book will be published by Headline in the UK tomorrow, July 10th, though I already ran into it in the wild in my local bookshop here in The Netherlands on Saturday. So go forth and check it out!

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


4 thoughts on “Deborah Harkness – Shadow of Night”

  1. I'm about 3/4 done with this book myself, and am really enjoying it. Sometimes Matthew makes me want to smack him because he's stupidly overprotective, but other than that, it's definitely an enjoyable read.

  2. @Ria: Yes, that! Though as I said, I like that Diana doesn't take that over-protective nonsense from him!

    @Zoe: I think you might enjoy the second book more than the first one actually! But that's just from gauging your reviews, so I mightbe completely off!

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