The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Isn’t it amazing how people can read the same book and yet have such contrasting reactions and opinions about it? I just read a review of this book which damned it with faint praise and yet also offered very legitimate and well written reasons as to why that particular reader didn’t connect with the story or characters. Well, my experience could not have been more different. I adored this book – the story, the use of real history, the wonderful rich and complex characters – so much so, I slowed down my reading because I didn’t want this tale to end.

So, what’s it about? Set in the late 1800s, and in a world that mirrors our own but isn’t quite the same (for example, there’s magic), the action occurs when the suffragette movement was finding its legs and voice in the USA. It’s about three estranged sisters, Juniper, Agnes and Beatrice who, almost against their will, find themselves together in New Salem where the women’s movement is struggling to be heard. Forced to hide and even deny their magic, women and witches have endured oppression, bigotry and violence for centuries and this appears to be gaining momentum. As the blurb says, there are patriarchal forces out there who will not suffer a witch/women to vote – or live. But those forces didn’t account for the combined power of the three sisters nor the magic they unwittingly unleash and must now seek to harness if they don’t want the dark powers stalking and haunting them to silence them and thus all women/witches once and for all.

Exquisitely written, rich and dark, this tale about some women’s fight for recognition, for basic human rights and the lengths they’re forced to go to in order to secure these, the sacrifices they’re prepared (and not) to make, echoes loudly even in these times. It is a tale fraught with peril, dangerous beauty and wonderful friendships. It’s about love, loss and the troublesome nature of families and the bonds that both unite and divide, and how our pasts have an unfortunate habit of coming back to plague us. Imaginative, wondrous and so relatable in the here and now, this is a marvellous book that will linger long after the last heart-wrenching page. 

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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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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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