Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness
I was really looking forward to this book. It’s the second in the All Souls trilogy. The first, A Discovery of Witches, was one of my favorites of last year. The series is about a witch who falls in love with a vampire. In this fantasy world, witches, daemons, and vampires all exist and interact with each other and humans in intricate webs of power and intrigue. Relationships between the species, though, are forbidden, which is a major source of drama for the protagonists. The mystery driving the plot is an origin story: how and why were witches, daemons, and vampires created or evolved? Matthew, the scientist vampire, is approaching the question from his disciplinary perspective, as he also tries to figure out why vampires are unable to create new vampires anymore. Diana, the witch narrator, is searching for a lost manuscript on alchemy that seems to explain the origins of the species.
As Shadow of Night opens, Matthew and Diana arrive in England in 1590; they just left modern Massachusetts to seek out the book and evade enemies. The time travel theory of this book is a little unusual and a bit nonsensical to me, to be honest. Since Matthew is a 1500-year-old vampire, he was alive in 1590. Rather than deal with the problem of having two Matthews running around, Harkness decided that Matthew would merge mysteriously with his past self during the time when he’s in the past, and then Matthew-of-1590 would suddenly reappear with no memory of the past year after the present-day version of Matthew goes back to the future. This didn’t make any logical sense to me, so that bothered me quite a bit, but that’s probably the worst part of the book. I think it would have been better to just send 1590-Matthew to China or something. He did need to be out of the way, but merging the two versions of the character was distractingly illogical.
Shadow of Night suffers from the structural problem found in many trilogies: the second book is almost always the weakest link. A Discovery of Witches was fascinating with its uncovering of the mythology of witches, vampires, and daemons, and the unfolding love story of Matthew and Diana. The next book promises great things in bringing the mystery to a close, and resolving the romance plot with a birth that has implications for the scientific and philosophical questions raised by the first book. This book, stuck between the introduction of a mystery and its resolution, is mostly about the deepening relationship of Diana and Matthew, their attempts to find the manuscript, Diana’s developing magical talents, and just playing around in the setting of the past. (Harkness is a history professor, and the quality of her research shows when she brings these Renaissance settings and real historical figures to life.) It’s good fun, but somewhat less dramatic and urgent than the other parts of the series.
My favorite passage of the novel showed Diana and Matthew playfully riffing on current popular vampire fiction: “Sex and dominance. It’s what modern humans think vampire relationships are all about. Their stories are full of crazed alpha-male vampires throwing women over their shoulders before dragging them off for dinner and a date.” Later in the dialog there are a few phrases that I’ve seen scattered all over feminist reviews of Twilight: “overprotective behavior,” “callous bastards,” “hearts of gold,” “jealous rage.” It’s a hilarious send-up that at the same time acknowledges the ways this series plays into all of the same tropes: they’re in bed before the conversation is over.
Generally, a strength of the series is that the relationship between Matthew and Diana is one of equals, with intimacy that isn’t just physical, a complete acceptance of the other. Diana often has to push Matthew to open up to her, but by the end of this book their bond is stronger than ever. It’s going to have to be, as they’re about to face enemies and hard truths again, now that they’re back in the present. I can’t wait for the end of the trilogy!