Deborah Harkness – The Book of Life

deborahharkness-thebookoflifeA world of witches, daemons and vampires. A manuscript which holds the secrets of their past and the key to their future. Diana and Matthew – the forbidden love at the heart of it.

After travelling through time in SHADOW OF NIGHT, the second book in Deborah Harkness’s enchanting series, historian and witch Diana Bishop and vampire scientist Matthew Clairmont return to the present to face new crises and old enemies. At Matthew’s ancestral home in France they reunite with their families – with one heart-breaking exception. But the real threat to their future is yet to be revealed, and when it is, the search for the elusive manuscript Ashmole 782 and its missing pages takes on a terrifying urgency. Using ancient knowledge and modern science, from the palaces of Venice and beyond, Diana and Matthew will finally learn what the witches discovered so many centuries ago.

I was surprisingly blown away by the first book in this series and its sequel drew me in even further. Yet A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night were two very different books. Where A Discovery of Witches was modern day supernatural fantasy, Shadow of Night was very much a historical fantasy. And I was looking forward to seeing what The Book of Life would be. As far as setting goes, The Book of Life is very much more in the vein of A Discovery of Witches, yet with the added benefit of some of the fantastic characters from Shadow of Night. Yet like both of its predecessor the book makes for addictive reading and I had a serious case of book hangover once I finished it.

Of a necessity, talking about The Book of Life will contain some spoilers for the previous books, so if you want to remain unspoiled, beyond the cut will be SPOILERS!  

With Matthew and Diana’s return to the present time, the story takes a new direction, especially considering Diana’s increased power and skills and her unique condition, a witch carrying a vampire’s babies. I love how Harkness incorporates the pregnancy in the plot, creating limits on what Diana can and cannot do, without turning her into a fragile glasshouse flower who can be allowed to do anything for herself. Instead, Diana remains her strong, independent and active self as much as she can; dealing with the vagaries of pregnancy as she must – I related to the constant 24/7 nausea, having had it with both my girls, so I really felt for Diana on that score – going on with life in the main.

With the return to the twenty-first century also comes the return of modern science and I adored the way the two strands of scholarship intertwined and furthered the plot, with neither Diana’s historical research or Matthew’s science being the deciding factor, proving that the Humanities and the Sciences aren’t oppositional fields, but should be complementary. This modern research also allowed for a larger role for Diana’s best friend Chris and for the return of Miriam to the main stage. I loved these two; their dynamic was awesome. The undeniable attraction combined with a competitive streak of academic ambition made for great entertainment.

With our protagonists returned to the family fold, Harkness gives the reader a closer look at vampire family politics, especially as Diana is now a fully fledged, if warm-blooded, member of said family. These politics are more complex than they seemed at first blush and it was interesting to see Diana finding her feet in them. When she does, she’s upgraded to the next level, she’s sent to Venice to face the Congregation. The chapters set in Venice were among my favourites in the book. Being once more amongst the De Clermonts also means learning more about their history, such as Marcus’ history in New Orleans, the different members of the De Clermont family, and about Matthew’s first son.

The Book of Life sees the return of many characters from the previous book, chief amongst them Gallowglass. Matthew’s Gaelic cousin was one of my very favourite characters in Shadow of Night, so it was wonderful to see him again in The Book of Life. His journey in this book and the revelation of how he has spent the years since 1591 is rather heartbreaking. Another family member that plays a larger role in this book is Fernando, Matthew’s brother-in-law, his brother Hugh’s widower. He is a wonderful characters, full of empathy and patience. Yet despite my liking for these two characters and the very much testosterone-driven society of the vampires, in this book it’s very much the women who are the power players, even if the men bark louder. The Book of Life is filled with fabulous women, from the fearless and loyal Diana, the regal Mater Familias Ysabeau, stubborn and loving Aunt Sarah, the cool, calm, and cerebral Miriam, to clever, courageous Phoebe. All of them are special in their own way and I loved the bonds Harkness creates between them.

What I didn’t like was the neat pairing off that took place. It felt a little too convenient. What bothered me most though, was the dynamic between Diana and Matthew. It bothered me more than in previous books, he was so possessive and dominant, that in a normal situation we’d say it was an abusive relationship and she should get out of there. Even the fact that his possessiveness is due to his vampire nature and exacerbated by his blood rage doesn’t really make it better. Only the fact that Diana realises this and never acquiesces in his trying to limit her agency and knows how to handle it and manipulate Matthew into getting her own way, makes it just this side of creepy. But it is in no way a healthy or easy relationship.

I adored The Book of Life and I really and truly hope this is not the last we’ve seen of Diana, Matthew and their family. And Harkness seems to have allowed an opening for her to return to this world, even if this book wraps up the story arc of the All Souls trilogy quite well. No matter whether she returns to the world she’s created here or not, I can’t wait to see what Harkness writes next, as she knows how tell a fantastic story. A mix of bookish thriller, supernatural romance, and historical novel, The Book of Life is a compelling ending to Deborah Harkness’ debut trilogy. If you haven’t started the series yet, I highly recommend you pick it up, as it is a fantastic read.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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  • I would love to see another book in this world but from another perspective. I loved the trilogy but, dare I say it, I’d kinda had enough of Diana and Matthew by the end. But I love the supporting characters and the supernatural politics.

    • You know what would be awesome? A book featuring Gallowglass and Fernando! Or possibly Marcus in New Orleans.

  • I’ll be reading this one next month. I couldn’t get to it before its release date, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to make room for it in early August instead of late August. I enjoyed the first two books, and I’m so excited to have the third one in my hands! :D