Book Review: Shadow of Night, Deborah Harkness

I’d been looking forward to reading the sequel to Harkness’ debut novel, A Discovery of Witches, the wonderfully titled, Shadow of Night, for a while. The first book was a surprisingly elegant and original addition to the plethora of “supernatural” books causing a glut in the marketplace and it ended with a marvellous cliff-hanger and the promise of time-travel to one of my favourite historical periods, Elizabethan England. What was not to anticipate?

But, when I first started reading Shadow of Night, I thought there must be some mistake – for while Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont do tumble into the 1500s and meet up with such historical luminaries as Christopher Marlowe, Walter Raleigh, Shakespeare, Queen Lizzie the First and others, the first 100 or so pages did not live up to the expectations created in DoW. I found them clumsy, over reliant on dialogue between said historical “greats” and structured so as not to make too much sense in terms of plot and character development.

While Matthew is quickly settled into his old life among his artistic and mostly aristocratic familiars, the “School of Night,” Diana is literally a fish out of water and flounders around trying to negotiate between her scholarship and academically developed understanding of the past, of history, and living in the period. All well and good, right? But while Harkness takes advantage of Diana’s adjustments, using them to explore and explain the early Renaissance to the uninitiated reader, because so much of this “settling in” occurs in the form of conversation, it’s both incredibly disjointed, and becomes a barrage of new information that was difficult to follow. Not so much because of the history or the time in which the action is set, but due to the fact it appeared to steer so far from the main plot. For some reason, the first hundred pages appear to be all over the place and while I thought I knew why Diana and Matthew had taken the plunge into the past (to find Diana a witch-tutor and to discover more about the manuscript Ashmole 782), their motivations seem to become lost in a mire of clever banter, odd characters popping in an out of the house (that also take the plot in strange directions and don’t really serve the main story eg. the old witch), both from the past and imagined, and mis-directions. I don’t know whether it was me, or if the first part of the book is hard to follow, but I almost didn’t continue. Even the characters of Diana and Matthew, of whom I’d grown very fond, appeared to change into something that made them almost unrecognisable and worse, shallow.

Fortunately, once Diana and Matthew leave England and journey to France, the book improves and the plot appears to slowly reveal itself to be coherent and quite exciting. On the trail of the witch teacher and the unbelievably elusive Ashmole 782, they encounter danger, become embroiled in supernatural and real world politics, and discover aspects about each other that surprise, frighten and delight and all against the backdrop of Elizabethan England, Prague and France.

Some parts of the book are stronger than others and it still feels like a great deal of time is wasted running hither and thither, but once she hits her stride, Harkness does a terrific job of bringing the period to life through smells, sights, sounds as well as the food and clothing, never mind her descriptions of the streets and general geography of the places Diana and Matthew inhabit. From the second half of the book onwards, I also really enjoyed the witchcraft elements of the tale – the way power is divided, drawn upon and shared and how Diana (finally) begins to understand what she is and how to wield her abilities is imaginative and entertaining.

At one stage, I thought I was going to leave the series with this book but a strong finish has ensured that I’m keen to know what happens to this powerful pair who threaten to unravel, or at least challenge, the laws that have governed human and supernatural relations for centuries.

Overall, a good read, but be patient and do persevere if, like me, you find the first hundred or so pages indulgent and thus a struggle, because it’s ultimately worth it.

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