This is the second book in the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness. I read the first, A Discovery of Witches, earlier this year and the third, The Book of Life, has just been published, which is what made me decide to pick up the middle book last week.
Shadow of Night follows witch Diana Bishop and vampire Matthew Clairmont as they travel back in time to the year 1590 with two goals in mind. The first is to hunt down Ashmole 782, an elusive manuscript which they hope will provide important information on the origins of their species – witches, vampires and daemons (known collectively as ‘creatures’). The second is to find another witch who can help Diana to understand and control her magical powers. Another benefit of leaving the present day behind is that Matthew and Diana will be able to escape the clutches of the other witches, vampires and daemons who have also been trying to get their hands on Ashmole 782.
Arriving in Elizabethan England, Diana discovers that Matthew is one of a group of writers, artists and scientists known as the School of Night, whose other members include Sir Walter Raleigh and Christopher (Kit) Marlowe. Reunited with his old friends again, Matthew also resumes one of his other occupations – spying for Elizabeth I. Meanwhile, Diana’s mission to find a witch willing to train her in the use of magic proves more difficult than expected in a time when public fear and suspicion of witches is increasing. Discovering that life in the past is no less complicated than it was in the present, Diana’s and Matthew’s adventures take them first into the heart of Elizabethan London, then to Matthew’s family estate at Sept-Tours in France and to the court of Rudolf II in Prague.
This book should have been perfect for me as I usually enjoy both historical fiction and time travel, but I think I actually preferred A Discovery of Witches. There were some parts of this book that I loved, but for such a long novel (nearly 600 pages) I found the pace very slow and uneven. It seemed that most of the book’s major developments all took place in the final 50-100 pages.
There are a lot of characters to keep track of in Shadow of Night and the character list at the back of the book was very useful. Diana and Matthew meet a huge number of real historical figures as they travel between London, Sept-Tours and Prague, but while some of these were very intriguing, such as the Rabbi Judah Loew who created the Golem of Prague, many of them had little or no relevance to the story. I couldn’t help thinking that they had been included just for the sake of it; I would rather have had fewer characters so that we could spend more time getting to know each one. I also really disliked the portrayal of Kit Marlowe in the book. I’m sure the real Marlowe would have been a fascinating character to write about in his own right; making him a daemon (a very spiteful, petulant daemon) added nothing to the story.
Matthew began to stretch my belief to its limits. Not only does he belong to the School of Night, he is also a member of at least one other secret organisation and an order of chivalry, a spy for Elizabeth I and a close personal friend of numerous famous historical figures from all over Europe. You may think that as I’m happy to accept that he’s a vampire I should be able to accept the rest of it too, but it all felt too convenient and just not believable in the context of the story. I do like Diana, partly because as she’s the narrator the reader naturally feels closer to her, but I would still like to see her take the lead more often when it comes to decision-making.
The time travel aspect of the book didn’t quite make sense to me either – it seemed that as Matthew was returning to an earlier period in his own life, he simply replaced his previous self for a while, but I’m not sure what was supposed to have happened to the 16th century Matthew in the meantime or what would happen when he came back. Time travel is always confusing, though, so I tried not to think about it too much! I did like the way each section of the book ended with a chapter set in the present day, showing how Matthew and Diana’s actions in the past affect the future. This also gave us a chance to briefly catch up with characters from the previous book such as Diana’s aunts, Sarah and Emily, and Matthew’s mother, Ysabeau.
Although I didn’t find this book as enjoyable as A Discovery of Witches, I think it maybe suffered from being the middle book in a trilogy. I will still be reading The Book of Life and hoping I don’t have any of the problems I had with this one!
Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review.