The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness
This book concludes the Discovery of Witches trilogy. I think I found myself enjoying each book in this series less than the one before. Instead of growing on me, the characters grated. I had a lot of expectations for this book, but I didn’t find the revelations as surprising as I’d hoped, although it was somewhat satisfying to see some of the villains get their comeuppances.
The gender politics in this book are complicated, but overall seemed to me to be more progressive on the surface than they were at the deeper level where it counts. At the very least, I found them questionable, and that was disappointing, because I remember thinking the previous books were so egalitarian. (Maybe it’s also a sign of my own standards getting higher in the intervening years.) It’s good that Matthew encourages Diana to keep her name rather than take his, and refers to their family as the Bishop-Clairmont clan. It’s good that Diana has to save Matthew at the climax, rather than vice versa. But on the other hand, numerous times, characters discuss how hard it is for Matthew to be away from Diana even for very short periods of time, and it starts to sound kind of unhealthy. In this way the story romanticizes overprotective and clingy behavior. And on the sentence level, several passages describing the emotional relationship between them seemed slightly off:
“The secret is that I may be the head of the Bishop-Clairmont family, but you are its heart,” he whispered. “And the three of us are in perfect agreement: The heart is more important” (447).
“Dance with me, I said…
I trod on his toe. “Sorry.”
“You’re trying to lead again,” he murmured. He pressed a kiss to my lips, then whirled me around. “At the moment your job is to follow.”
“I forgot,” I said with a laugh.
“I’ll have to remind you more often, then.” Matthew swung me tight to his body. His kiss was rough enough to be a warning and sweet enough to be a promise (552).
These passages seem to emphasize that despite Diana’s intelligence, scholarship, and supernatural power, she has to take a submissive role in relation to Matthew. Harkness romanticizes this submissive role, making it seem sexy and going on about how important it is, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that it tilts the balance of power in the relationship away from the heroine.
One aspect of the series I found mildly annoying was the focus on opulent backgrounds and settings. Harkness meticulously describes décor, furnishings, and artwork, as well as the extravagant menus of several parties. I think these passages are mostly meant to provide the reader with pretty images, as well as to show the wealth, power, and exquisite taste of the characters. Since the de Clermonts are vampires, they’ve had centuries to accumulate money and collect fine art from every era. One character makes a big deal about the fact that a portrait by a famous Renaissance artist is hanging in one of the bathrooms of the de Clermont castle. I would have gotten the point about what these settings communicated about the characters if 3/4 of these passages had been cut from the books. In their excess, these passages mostly just read to me as materialism.
When Diana first encounters the villain, she hesitates to use her magic arrow to take him down, and the story makes a big deal of this hesitation, as if it’s her tragic flaw or something. I don’t find it to be a moral failing to hesitate to kill someone, to weigh that decision carefully even in a tense moment of threatening confrontation, so this idea rang false to me. After all, Diana is not a trained soldier, so expecting her to react like one is unrealistic, and the way she berates herself and accepts guilt for the villain’s later actions is ridiculous.