Review: The Book of Life

I’ve been (voraciously) reading Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy this month, and now I’ve reached the end of the final volume: The Book of Life. No spoilers for book three in the review below, but please read both A Discovery of Witches (book one) and Shadow of Night (two) before continuing below.

thebookoflifeAbout the book: Matthew and Diana are running out of time–the Congregation is closing in, their enemies uniting, and the Book of Life seems more impossibly lost than ever. More secrets are uncovered, threatening to divide even trusted friends. Phillipe’s blood vow that marks Diana as a de Clermont must be recognized by her adoptive siblings or be lost forever in insignificance. With tyrannical Baldwin nosing into affairs as the head of the de Clermont family and Marcus taking lead as the grand master of the Knights of Lazarus, Matthew must follow orders instead of give them. Diana, pregnant with twins, is more vulnerable than ever, but while Matthew settles matters regarding the future of his family she must seek the book alone, both of them simply hoping against all odds for the best. If they don’t find the manuscript and secure enough support by the time the twins are born, the births may be a death sentence for them all.

“I see you, even when you hide from the rest of the world. I hear you, even when you’re silent.”

First, I want to take a break from the complaints I’ve had about these books and say that this was the story I’ve been waiting for since I opened the cover of book one. Here are some of the reasons this book seems so superior to its predecessors:

  • The dialogue is more abundant, and more excellent. All of the important characters from every scattered time and place that Diana and Matthew have been are coming together. Every conversation is rife with discord and excitement that unfolds in delicious banter.
  • There are more perspectives. Diana and Matthew are still the main focus, but we see their piece of the story as one part of the whole. Again, all of the significant characters are back, and Matthew and Diana are finally sharing center stage in a way that’s beneficial to the story as a whole.
  • The pacing has increased–by which I mean, no more long descriptions of wine and food and furniture. Instead of hundreds of pages of thoughts and planning, the events of this book move adeptly from one plot point to the next in constant forward motion.
  • Matthew is getting his protectiveness/dominance under control. He’s got more progress to make, but he’s proving that it’s possible and he’s working toward it.

“Don’t worry. Matthew won’t be able to stay away for long. It’s one thing to wander in the darkness because you know no different, but it’s quite another to enjoy the light only to have it taken from you.”

I absolutely devoured this book. The plot and characters are more exciting. There are improvements in the layout–the aforementioned multiple perspectives, as well as sections divided by blurbs about the zodiac signs that foreshadow the next chapters. Mysteries are at last being solved instead of multiplied. There’s an actual villain, rather than a vague idea of “many people won’t like this, they might get organized and become a problem.” But, alas, for all its successes, The Book of Life is not perfect.

The biggest issues I have with this final volume are threads left dangling. Though the story as a whole is concluded adequately, a few matters are left open-ended. For some books, this is a great possibility for an ending. But generally, to keep the reader satisfied, open-ended questions must be guided with clear A, B, and maybe C options so the reader can choose a side and still feel that the story has come full circle. This book doesn’t even present options for some of its unanswered questions.

For example: what becomes of Gallowglass? Something is revealed about him in The Book of Life that helps explain his willingness to aid Matthew and Diana’s quest for the manuscript. When that secret becomes a problem, he just disappears. By the end of the book, the problem has not gone away, and there’s still no sign of Gallowglass, who has become a significant character.

Additionally, there’s a big vote held by the Congregation that is supposed to decide whether Matthew and Diana are to be helped on a certain matter. I won’t give more details about the specifics of the vote, and I won’t even say which way the vote goes. But after the suspenseful verdict has been reached, there seems to be no indication of help or hindrance from the Congregation on the matter in question. What was the purpose of the vote, in that case? How will that affect all the other matters they’re still voting on at the end of the story? The Congregation and its future is left irritatingly vague.

And finally, there’s the biggest unanswered question of all: what the heck is going to happen with Matthew and Diana’s epic romance in light of the fact that one of them is immortal and the other is not? The only clear detail surrounding Diana’s mortality is the fact that she will probably not become a vampire. But is there some other way to extend her life? Are they both just going to accept that she’s going to live a few more decades and then Matthew will carry on alone? Can he even carry on alone? The Book of Life was rumored to hold secrets about the philosopher’s stone, which grants some sort of immortality. Is that a philosophical immortality alone–the answer to the continued survival of their species? Or is there some way for Diana’s longevity to be increased? There are too many questions left. Even if she’s satisfied with her mortality and everyone’s planning to let her die peacefully at the end of her mortal life, I wanted to read that answer in these pages. Instead, I’m left wondering how Diana’s longevity apparently went undiscussed through three long books in which Matthew is constantly consumed with worry about her safety. I cannot fathom why this isn’t properly addressed by the end of the trilogy. I needed more closure.

“Did you know that nothing you see on the Internet ever dies, Diana? It lives on and on, just like a vampire.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I haven’t been this obsessive about a guilty pleasure series since I read all of the Outlander books over a year ago. In a lot of ways, Harkness’ books remind me of Gabaldon’s. This third volume is by far my favorite, and I would recommend that if you have any interest in this series at all you should stick it out through the first two and be sure to pick this one up. I’m glad I did.

Further recommendations:

  1. Let me reiterate my recommendation of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander for Deborah Harkness fans. It’s got as many possible similarities as I believe two series can have while narrating different subjects. Outlander is a cross between romance, history, and magic, like the All Souls trilogy. There’s even a would-be pickpocket apprehended and turned family, like Jack. There’s torture and politics and treason and travel. If you like A Discovery of Witches, pick up Outlander. The third book in this series also is especially worth the time it takes to get there.

What’s next: I’m currently finishing up with Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die, a crazy YA tale about a backwards Oz and Amy Gumm, the second girl to leave Kansas via tornado. I’ll have a review posted soon, and it’ll be back to regularly scheduled programming from there. Meaning I’m finally back to my original June TBR after my All Souls divergence!

Do you prefer reading books of a series back to back, or with breaks between volumes? I generally prefer breaks, to savor the series more, but it doesn’t always work that way.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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