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Iris on Books

Iris is a PhD student and book blogger who's favourite pastime is curling up under a blanket with a cup of tea and a good book.

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Shadow of Night: A Novel (All Souls Trilogy)

Shadow of Night - Deborah Harkness [review copy from Netgalley. Review originally posted here]

This must be one of the most highly anticipated titles released in 2012. As a sequel to the very successful A Discovery of Witches, this novel, situated in Elizabethan England, looked very promising.

Shadow of Night picks up where A Discovery of Witches ends. Diana and Matthew have travelled to Elizabethan London. Here, Diana seeks a witch to tutor her in magic, while together they try to locate the mysterious manuscript Ashmole 782. What they had not anticipated was how complicated Matthew’s life was back in 1590: he worked as a spy for Elizabeth I, dealt with family duties, and was a member of the mysterious School of Night that included Kit Marlowe and Walter Raleigh. Nor had they anticipated that it would be so difficult to find a witch willing to help Diana. With society’s fear of witches on the rise it soon proves difficult to find someone willing to cooperate. Will they accomplish what they set out to do and still return home with their feelings for each other intact?

Before I turn to my opinion on its sequel, I should probably note that I did not unequivocally love A Discovery of Witches. I fell in love with the first 200 pages of the book, Diana’s strong character and the academic library love was enough to guarantee that. I felt the book went downhill from there on out, some of Diana’s strength was lost in Matthew controlling behaviour as her partner, and the latter third of the story felt a little bit rushed. Nevertheless, there was something exciting and addictive to the book, and the idea of them travelling to Elizabethan England and meeting Kit Marlowe made me very curious to read Shadow of Night.

I am sorry to say that I could not muster the same excitement about Shadow of Night upon reading and finishing it. I have been contemplating why this was the case. Perhaps the fact that stories about the beginning of a relationship are often more exciting than ones that explore established love affairs plays a role? All in all, I don’t feel I can pinpoint one particular thing, but I will try to explain some of my reasons below.

But first let me note what I did appreciate in Shadow of Night: Deborah Harkness’ attention for historical detail. During the first 150 pages I was quite excited to contemplate all the possibilities of choosing a historical setting and then mixing it up with elements from a fantasy world. And Harkness, as a historian of magic and science between 1500 and 1700, seems to know what she’s talking about. She takes her time establishing the feel of London in the 1590′s (and other places such as France and the Holy Roman Empire). And she establishes some of the intriguing members of the School of Night as characters in her novel. I also appreciated how she pays attention to the different experiences people from different background can have of a certain setting. For example, Diana, as a woman and a witch, experiences other difficulties and opportunities than Matthew, as an established and wealthy male and vampire, does.

Nevertheless, I also felt that her eye for historical detail got in the way of the storytelling sometimes. Shadow of Souls features a lot of inordinately long detailed descriptions of clothes, settings, and characters that do not seem to have any relevance to the story. I am unsure if this was the same in A Discovery of Witches. If it was, it did not bother me so much because the story was more fast-paced. We can establish that Harkness has not succumbed to the rushed pace of the last third of A Discovery of Witches (which is a good thing!), but instead she got a little too lost in the details which made this second installment quite boring and slow at times. To be quite honest, Shadow of Souls could have done without a lot of the historical characters, and Matthew’s acquaintance with half the famous people of around that time felt a little bit too convenient at a certain point.

The pace is really one of the biggest problems I had with the second installment in the All Souls Trilogy. I felt like I was trudging through most of this 592 page novel. 592 pages is a lot when you feel you have to drag yourself through most parts. Not enough occurred to make me feel I needed to read on, or perhaps the things that did occur never impacted me enough to experience the necessary pull. Admittedly, there were some intriguing episodes. And from page 500 onwards, with the emotional scene around page 520 as a particular highlight (those who have read the book will know what I’m talking about), things were decidedly looking up, before they sizzled out again. Seriously, for a book that I had such difficulty in finishing, while I read the first book within two days, the scenes around page 520 had me crying unexpectedly. But it simply was not enough to remedy the faults I found with the book in general.

One of those things I found fault with was the execution of the story around Kit Marlowe. In Shadow of Night, Kit Marlowe is a daemon who enjoys the patronage of Matthew, and is also deeply in love with him. When modern-time Matthew arrives in 1590 with a wife by his side, Marlowe is jealous. His jealousy goes so far as to bring Diana in danger several times. Now, given Matthew’s overprotective nature for the extent of two novels, it is rather hard to believe that he would forgive Marlowe as easily as he does, and repeatedly. This made it seem as if Kit was brought in not as an interesting historical character in his own right, but as someone to endanger Diana at specific turns. I admit I had expected more from a character who was announced as someone to look forward to in A Discovery of Witches.

But there was one thing I found decidedly more problematic, and that was the relationship dynamic of Diana and Matthew. As I noted in one of my GoodReads status updates:

There’s an, um, interesting, dynamic going on where Diana predicts things won’t work that way for a woman in 1590′s (knowledge from history books), and Matthew says they will claiming his superior knowledge having lived at the time (but as a man, Diana implies). Of course, things go wrong. Diana loses patience because she’s like “I told you so”. And then when things go wrong, Diana apologizes to Matthew…

I cannot tell you more about this particular event without (perhaps) spoiling the book for others, but this kind of dynamic occurs repeatedly.

You can see Deborah Harkness working to address the unequal relationship dynamics that are perhaps ingrained in a vampire relationship. And I do want to give credit to her for doing so. Giving Diana equal powers as a witch is perhaps part of this. As are Diana and Matthew’s repeated arguments, where Diana fights for Matthew’s acceptance of her “as she is”. But the solutions offered often left me dissatisfied. And I couldn’t help but feel the balance still skewed in Matthew’s favour. Perhaps because I had wanted this to be resolved in this installment, I felt the dynamics were more problematic in Shadow of Souls.

In sum, Shadow of Souls lacked a sense of urgency and addictiveness that could be found in A Discovery of Witches. This lack of pace made it a slow and boring read at times, and made it easier to find fault with some of the plot points. Despite the beautifully executed emotional scene near the end, I am afraid to say I did not enjoy reading this second installment in the All Souls Trilogy much. I will in all probability be reading the last part of the trilogy, as I’d like to finish what I started. And I suspect Harkness will do better in painting a portrait of Matthew and Diana in the middle of their extended families. But right after finishing Shadow of Souls, I am happy to wait a while before reading the third book.