Deborah Harkness finishes her All Souls Trilogy

Posted Sunday, Jul. 27, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

The Book of Life (Part 3, All Souls Trilogy)

by Deborah Harkness

Viking, $28.95

* * * * 

Audiobook: Penguin Audio, $49.95; narrated by actress Jennifer Ikeda, who also read A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night.

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The third book’s the charm for Deborah Harkness’ witchy “All Souls Trilogy.”

The last installment in any series carries a certain burden: The readers need to feel that the ending is worthy of the amount of time they have invested. And this particular trilogy is a bit of a whopper, with the final volume alone, called The Book of Life, weighing in at about 600 pages.

Thankfully, Harkness tells a compelling, imaginative tale that wraps up the major plot elements of the series in a believable but surprising ending.

First, let’s recap what’s happened thus far. In Book One, A Discovery of Witches, we met the young, beautiful and smart historian Diana Bishop, an American working at Oxford. While researching in the Bodleian Library, she calls for a book but sends it back into the stacks when she senses it is bewitched.

Diana is a witch but not a very good one; she has, in fact, spent most of her life trying to deny her power.

But sending the book back is a decision that she soon mostly regrets, as she finds herself surrounded by witches and other creatures (vampires and daemons) who have been searching for this particular volume, known as Ashmole 782, for centuries believing it holds the key to understanding their origins.

One of these creatures, though, is the terribly handsome vampire and biochemist Matthew Clairmont, whom she falls head over heels in love with despite the taboos that should keep them apart. The couple become outlaws within the world of creatures, as they are breaking a covenant that bans different kinds of creatures from interacting at such a personal level.

In the second book, Shadow of Night, the couple — thanks to Diana’s new-found ability to time-travel — goes back to Elizabethan London, where they continue to search for Ashmole 782 (including three pages that are missing), reconnect with Matthew’s famous friends from that time period, as well as his long-dead father, and help Diana ramp up her powers to astonishing new levels.

While a lot happens in those first two books, much of it feels like the author is marking time, setting things up for a big finale. In this book, the set-up continues as the plot grows ever more complex.

Matthew and a pregnant Diana — carrying one of three missing pages from Ashmole 782, which they found in the past — return to the present day, first heading to her family home in upper New York state. They then decamp to New Haven, Conn., where Diana’s friend Chris runs a genetics lab at Yale.

Matthew joins them, and their team of brilliant young minds sets out to analyze the DNA from a page from Ashmole 782, hoping it will reveal some of the book’s secrets and also tell them something about blood rage.

Ah, blood rage. This turns out to the major new plot point for this book. As Matthew, who has it, explains it: “Blood rage is a developmental anomaly. There’s a genetic component, but the blood-rage gene appears to be triggered by something in our noncoding DNA.”

When Diana hears this, she replies, “I don’t understand.” The good news is that really readers don’t need to completely understand the genetics either.

The point is that Matthew has an inherited disease that makes him insanely angry and violent sometimes. Unfortunately, Jack, a young boy Diana and Matthew took in off the streets back in Elizabethan London and who shows up in New Haven, has become a vampire, and he has it, too. It’s led him to kill lots of people, in fact.

Blood rage is such a horrible and shameful disease that families try to hide its presence. Matthew has somehow managed to keep his affliction a secret outside of his family, but as Matthew explains to Diana, “When the Congregation [the representatives who establish law and order for the world of creatures] discovers what Jack has done … they will kill him.” But only if Matthew’s brother Baldwin, the head of the de Clermont family, doesn’t get to Jack first.

Diana’s magic and her special ability to weave spells finally comes into full force in this book, and she and Matthew set out to literally solve the problems of their family and of the entire creature world.

Their mission takes our heroes back to France and Matthew’s ancestral home Sept-Tours, back to Oxford and Matthew’s estate there, and then off to Venice, where the Congregation meets and Matthew owns yet another beautiful home, and finally to other, scarier places in Europe where battles must be waged.

The final chapters provide lots of wonderful nail-biting action enhanced by the amazing abilities of creatures. And Harkness ambitiously weaves together the many various major plotlines into brilliant conclusions.

This is not a perfect book. I would have liked to see a bit more resolution for some of the minor characters, who just seem to drift off at the end of the story.

I also find the narration a bit jarring at times: While the novel is mostly written in first person from Diana’s point of view, there are some scenes where it’s not — when she’s separated from Matthew — and instead Harkness reveals what’s happening through an omniscient third-person narrator.

While these scenes definitely get the job done, I found the transitions a little clumsy.

And because Harkness is trying to do so much with the book, there are strands of ideas and characters that are introduced but don’t really go anywhere.

But these are minor quibbles. The Book of Life delivers action, romance and an imaginative take on an alternative world. Harkness builds her story on strong universal and modern themes.

While the book is about witches, vampires and daemons, it’s about the human condition, too, and offers strong ideas about family, racial equality and acceptance, the need for scientific understanding to trump superstition and most of all, the truly magical power of love.

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