Deborah Harkness
"The Book of Life"
By: Deborah Harkness
Publisher: Viking
Pages: 561
Price: $28.95
Buy at Amazon.com
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With book of three, so ends this magical, fantasy trilogy
September 27, 2014

"The Book of Life" brings a satisfying close to Deborah Harkness's charming All Souls Trilogy, but I am left hoping she will write more about the fascinating world she has created, and populated with unforgettable characters.

The trilogy began with "A Discovery of Witches" in 2011, which introduced historian Diana Bishop, a witch who mostly tries to deny her magic. Sure, she'll use her power to make a book come to her if it's out of her physical reach, but mostly she just doesn't want to be bothered by witchcraft and its trappings. She wants intellect to rule her.

But the world of creatures — witches, vampires and daemons — seems to be closing in around her, after she finds "Ashmole 782," a very old and very powerful book, in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

The Book of Life

Turns out all the creatures want to find that book, because they all think it holds great power, and the secrets of their making. But the book, mysteriously, only came to Diana, that one time, then disappeared again into the Bodleian.

By the end of the first book, Diana has fallen in love with a tall, dark and handsome vampire, Matthew Clairmont; figured out why she has been rebelling against being a witch; and come to understand that if she wants Matthew and herself to survive against various evil forces, she will have to learn to use her extraordinary witch powers; and will have to leave this particular time zone to do that. And, importantly, she has made a deal with the Goddess, who helps her save Matthew's life, in return for ... a player to be named later.

She figures out she will have to travel back in time to Elizabethan England with Matthew, which is what they do in the second book, "Shadow of Night." The goal then — in 1590 — is to find witches who can teach her to control her spell-weaving ability, which is a rare gift. And, along the way, look for "Ashmole 782" and meet a lot of celebrities, from Christopher Marlowe to Queen Elizabeth.

In the third book, Diana and Matthew have returned to modern times, but must fight for their right to stay together, because the Congregation — a sort of United Nations of witches, vampires and daemons — has forbidden vampires and witches to mate, and indeed, most think it is impossible.

But here is the witch Diana, pregnant with twins thanks to her vampire husband Matthew.

And, as we learn, for hundreds of years, other witches have been destroying weavers like Diana, because they fear their powers. And, Matthew must keep quiet about his condition — blood rage — because other vampires might kill him, to stop the inheritable condition from spreading.

Many forces conspire against the Bishop-Clairmont union, including an evil witch, Peter Knox, who is in league, as it turns out, with Matthew's rotten son, Christopher, who is torturing women witches in an effort to impregnate one.

And even in the large circle of allies gathered around Diana and Matthew — vampires, witches, daemons and humans — there are complex and violent acts of politics, such as when Matthew's brother, Baldwin, head of the Clairmont clan, tries to lay down the law with the couple.

"The Book of Life" is 561 pages of densely packed material, most of which I found extremely creative, intelligent and fascinating. For instance, in 1590, Diana, while learning about her powers as a weaver of spells, picked up a witch's familiar — in her case, a firedrake named Corra, who travels inside Diana's body, when not flying around annoying people and setting things on fire. Or saving Diana from something bad. Corra is important and heroic.

It complicates Diana's pregnancy that her babies must share room with a two-legged, sometimes cranky, dragon.

What makes "The Book of Life" such a fun read is the symphony of personalities Harkness creates. Diane, smart, educated, strong-willed and fearless, as powerful a heroine as could be wished. Matthew, also all those things, plus he's 1,500 years old (although he looks as if he is 37, his age when he was turned).

And Gallowglass, the rugged Scottish vampire who's been watching over Diana her entire life without her knowing it, until after her trip to 1590 and return to modern times. And Chris, the brilliant human genetic researcher, and Diana's friend from academia, who inserts himself into the mix, and finagles Matthew into moving his own research to Chris's lab. And Ysabeau, Matthew's beautiful and ancient mother, and Sarah, Diana's witch aunt, and many, many other fascinating characters.

There was a bit more romance-novel gushiness than I would have liked, but not so much that it erodes the underpinnings of this fine book. But, an example:

"But Matthew was too distracted to respond. He already felt the first, restless impulse to go after Diana. Soon he would be able to sit still more than a few moments before his instincts demanded he go to her. And it would only get worse from there."

The entire trilogy is fascinating — it is a thinking person's magical vampire romance. It has historical lore, ancient and modern human conflicts, science and technology. Who could ask for more?

Email John Orr at johnorr@regardingarts.com


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