Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Shadow of Night

by Deborah Harkness


Vampires and witches aren't enough for the second book in the All Souls trilogy. For added thrills this story goes back to Elizabethan times when witches were considerably less socially acceptable than today, and the Scottish witch trials were intensifying. Diana has learned to use magic to travel through time, going all the way back to 1590 with the help of some objects and taking Matthew with her. But in the past they're not quite the same people they were in the 21st century. Diana's hair has turned red and curly and the nature of her powers has changed. But Matthew has taken the place of his past self entirely, causing his old self to wink out of existence until he returns to the future. This conveniently avoids the possibility of him meeting himself and giving himself advice, although they're still in danger of messing up the course of history simply by being in the past. It's magic: it doesn't have to make sense.

In Elizabethan England Diana has to work hard to fit in. But religious persecution is only one of her concerns. The Congregation exists in these times, and there are factions in London who want a rogue witch like her under their control. She is in the past to find out more about the mysterious Ashmole 782 manuscript. And that's where she'll stay until she learns more about her magic and masters the technique for travelling forwards in time, which isn't the same as for going back.

The two of them meet an improbable number of famous historical figures. Diana incurs Marlowe's jealousy, practices alchemy with Mary Sidney, and spends time at Elizabeth's court. They also travel to the continent where they meet Matthew's family, and later on in Prague Diana attracts too much attention from Rudolph II, the Holy Roman Emperor. It's a bit of a tick list of all the famous people of the period. I got the sense that the author's love of history got in the way of a good story to some extent.

The writing in Shadow of Night is marginally better than that of A Discovery of Witches, so there's less wine tasting or focus on domestic trivia. However the pace is still rambling. There are too many characters, some of whom come and go without playing much of a role, at least in this book of the trilogy. For long stretches the tension simmers down at the level of a vague unease about their situation. Witches are dying hundreds of miles away in Scotland, off page, but for most of this book any threat to Diana's safety is distant.

Matthew has always been an old-fashioned character, and his attitude to women fits right in with the 1590s, with his peculiar mixture of chauvinism and overprotection. As a vampire he wants to drink Diana's blood, and that's a primal urge. It's dressed up with supernatural gloss, but Diana and Matthew have a sub-dom relationship that goes beyond merely being a bit kinky.

Diana is reliant on her relationship with Matthew for her status and protection, and she follows his lead in spite of her own considerable magical powers. These abilities make her out as some kind of chosen one, and they unfold rather predictably in sparkly new ways. Along with revelations about house ghosts, time travel, witchy auras and more, it's as though Deborah Harkness is piling on supernatural strangeness in order to get every last spell onto the page. But less is more. This book could have done with a lot more editing to improve its pace, fewer historical figures to make it more credible, and less superfluous magic. It kills the tension when the main characters are almost superpowered, even when their enemies are also creatures with special abilities of their own. It all leads up to an anti-climatic ending dominated by sadness and only a hint of disquiet about what's to come in the next book.

2nd July 2012

Book Details

Year: 2012

Categories: Books

    Female Protagonist  

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