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Book Review: The Book of Life, Deborah Harkness

The final book in the All Souls Trilogy, The Book of Life, had a great deal to live up to in terms of storylines, characters, plot reveals, reader expectations and, in many ways, it doesn’t disappoint. Whereas the second book, Shadow of Night, had vampire, Matthew Clairmont and witch, Diana Bishop, roaming the streets of Elizabethan London and encountering a veritable roll-call of historical icons, the third book is very much set in the present, even if it’s global in scope and enormous in execution. Characters from previous books return, new ones also appear and the tension and hostility between warring factions within families, supernatural races and members of the Congregation finally come to a head. Vengeance is either meted out or channelled into areas that are more productive and the power that we knew Diana Bishop held within and was struggling to control is finally unleashed.

Matthew and Diana’16054217s relationship is tested – not their faith in or love for each other, but through separation and the tasks they must undertake individually to save the family and bloodline from potential extinction. Playing on the themes of power, control, miscegenation (probably the paramount themes of the book if not the series and references to the Holocaust and the attempted genocide of the Jews underpins this), betrayal, genetics, science, knowledge, as well as love, family, understanding and tolerance, Harkness concludes this series in a mostly very gratifying way.

In terms of the writing, apart from some repetitive scenes at the beginning, it is lovely. The descriptive passages are eloquent and the ones where Diana gets to wield her power can be masterful. The more grisly scenes (and there are some really horrendous torture scenes unpacked for us) are horrible because they are so well written if somewhat graphic – but hey, this is about supernatural creatures. You can almost feel the flesh being flensed, every moment of the pain being inflicted and it physically hurts to have characters you care about rendered so impotent if not destroyed (though we don’t feel nearly the same degree of compassion or revulsion when it’s a Bishop-Clairmont enemy).

Having said that, offsetting these are scenes of utter joy – such as childbirth. But, I do think they became a bit twee and went on a bit long, especially in a book dedicated to vampires, witches and daemons. There’s also the sexual politics in the book where Matthew, as a vampire (along with other male members of his clan), impose their will upon and try to subordinate the females. Diana offers a challenge to this anachronistic patriarchal viewpoint and it’s to Harkness’s credit that she doesn’t succumb to political correctness, but both explores the animalistic nature of the vampires, their desire to protect a “mate” and also contemporary attitudes to gender roles, and has characters negotiating around these. In the end, the male vampires concede they need to change their approach and the feeling the reader is left with is that this is genuine and marks a real shift in the gender dynamics. Though, I confess, I was worried Harkness had come over all Twilight on us for a while – first with gender roles and then with cute babies that are powerful – fortunately, she hadn’t.

Harkness uses a shifting POV in this novel, including segueing from first to third person and, because this is the only novel in the series to do it, I am not sure it is as successful as it could have been had it been used throughout. It’s a wrench, occasionally, to move from one POV to the other and I generally love that kind of approach (think of Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor etc; I also use it in some of my own novels). While it does give the reader a specific insight into Diana’s thinking, Harkness’ control of her subject and character was already so good, I am not persuaded this was necessary.

While I found the initial chapters a little confusing (often the way between books in a trilogy) once Harkness hits her stride, so does the reader and there were parts of the book I couldn’t put down. Intelligent, considered, even poetic and able to make the alternate worlds of the vampires, witches and daemons, their politics and the science they want to uncover, let alone the nature of The Book of Life, believable is a monumental task and I think Harkness more than succeeds. Certainly, it’s one of the finest trilogies involving supernatural creatures around and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

 

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