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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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Review: Shadow of Night

Despite some issues I had with Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, I was addicted enough to throw part of my June TBR out the window to binge on the series. So instead of reading anything I actually had planned for this month, I stopped what I was in the middle of as soon as I made it back to my library to check out book two in Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy: Shadow of Night. It’s a guilty pleasure read for me, and I often find it best to just gorge on those to get them out of my system, so here we are. (Warning: there are spoilers from book one ahead.)

About the book: Matthew and Diana shadowofnightare still searching for answers and fighting for the right to love each other. Book one left them on the verge of time travel to 1590, with the surprising knowledge that they might be able to conceive children together. Now, back in Matthew’s past, future Matthew has to juggle all of his 1590 responsibilities that he thinks will lead to helpful connections in their ongoing searches for Ashmole 782 and a teacher for Diana. He insists on taking the lead, and makes some questionable choices which threaten not only the pair’s survival but the peace between them. Diana sets out to make connections of her own, and finds new friends and enemies in the process. Neither of them are sure when they should try going back to their own time, or if it’s even possible with Diana’s current skill level. As past and present collide, vampire and witch are tested anew–they must decide what they can afford to lose, and fight to the last  breath for what they can’t.

Stop regretting your life. Start living it.”

About the layout: This book is divided into parts, which mostly feature Diana (in the first person) and Matthew (in the third) on their many adventures. At the end of each part is a chapter featuring a different perspective from the present (circa 2010). These sections provide clues and connections between our main characters in the past and the ongoing story line in the “future,” but they’re confusingly brief. New characters are introduced only to be shuffled out of significance for the rest of the book. Perhaps they’ll be back in the final volume, but either way the amount of page time given to each of them seems odd–I think they’ve been given too little attention if they’re going to be significant, and too much if we’re already done with them. I think there’s real potential for this series in opening up the narration to multiple points of view, but that potential goes unrealized in this volume.

“Change is the only reliable thing in the world.”

Let’s examine the mystery of Matthew’s power. I dislike instances in fantasy when a supposedly powerful being calls on the influence he’s got stored up from the past and provides little to no evidence of how he became so influential in the first place. In these first two books, Matthew is calling in old friends, using his standing and money and family sway to win victories–but how did he become so intimidating in the first place? There seems to be no indication of how Matthew earned his high status in the creature world, which makes him seem less powerful than everyone claims. It’s a discrepancy of balance that goes back to the “show don’t tell” rule of writing. The single murder he committed in book one didn’t explain to me why even vampires are intimidated. I, for one, need more proof that he can back up his threats.

“Stop worrying about what other women do. Be your own extraordinary self.”

There are times when this book seems like it wants to be a feminist kick-ass tale of a female witch mastering impressive power. I’m not sure if it’s the traditionally possessive vampire in the story or something else entirely that prevents it, but Diana doesn’t present as a strong, independent woman, no matter how often Matthew tries to insist she is. Despite the words being spoken, there are so many instances that prove otherwise–for instance, there is a scene in this book when Diana finds herself alone and threatened, and in that time she seems capable of fighting for herself–but as soon as a would-be rescuer arrives, she’s eager to give the fight to someone else. It’s frustrating that she could be strong player but is always so eager to be rescued.

“There were times when Matthew behaved like an idiot–or the most arrogant man alive.”

And there’s the truest statement in this book. Matthew is bossy and domineering, always making assumptions and decisions for his underlings. But the narration seems to understand that he’s making bad choices and acting like a pompous ass, which suggests to me that Matthew will also realize it at some point and change his ways. It would help if Diana didn’t put up with it, but I keep thinking that eventually he’s going to learn he can’t rule the world–and then he could be a pretty great character. In the meantime, he’s almost a villainous love interest, and his most compelling aspect is his horde of secrets.

Additional small annoyances:

  • Vampire servants. Why would anyone want to spend their immortality serving someone else? I’m not saying it’s not possible, but what’s the reasoning?
  • Multiple marriages. How many times can one couple be married in different ways and then say “this time we’re really married” before the reader can no longer stand it? I’m setting the limit at four.
  • Difference in life spans. This is an interesting dilemma, but I’m still waiting for the narration to address the fact that Matthew is immortal and Diana is not.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I didn’t like this one quite as much as A Discovery of Witches, though it had some different pros and cons. I didn’t meant for this whole review to become a rant about the dissatisfying aspects because I did like some things about it–spoiler things that I don’t want to mention. I have a new favorite character who appears unexpectedly in this book, for example. But in my opinion sequels are hardly ever as good as books one and three, and I think that’s the case with this trilogy. I’m still determined to read book three and hopeful that it will be an improvement. I’ll probably be delving into it sooner rather than later.

Further recommendations:

  1. Bram Stoker’s Dracula would be a good choice for fans of Deborah Harkness’ books. I hesitate to recommend books I haven’t read (yet), but this one’s mentioned within the text of Shadow of Night, and I feel confident recommending the quintessential vampire story. Dracula is my classic of the month for October, but reading this trilogy has left me eyeing the book on my shelf lately with more longing than usual, and I think it would make a perfect companion to this vampire-filled trilogy.
  2. Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses is the first book in a faerie romance series with some strong comaprisons to the All Souls trilogy. The creatures in this one are more fantastical than the traditional vampires, witches and daemons in Harkness’ books, but the characters and their fight for love and answers strike some similar chords.

What’s next: Yesterday I started reading both Harkness’ The Book of Life, the final book in the All Souls trilogy, and Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die, from my actual June TBR. Dorothy Must Die is a YA tale about a backwards Oz and a new heroine from Kansas who must set things back to rights before Dorothy gets too carried away. These will be my next two reviews, in undetermined order.

What do you do when your TBR goes off the rails? Do you push it back on the track or go wherever the train takes you?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: you can now read my review of the next book in this series, The Book of Life!

Review: A Discovery of Witches

I’ve always enjoyed fantasy books, and  every now and then I have a craving for vampires–they’re such tortured souls. Immortality, apparently, can be burdensome.  I found Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches at my library recently, and although it turned out not at all as I’d expected, I realized pretty quickly that I was in it for the long haul. (This is the first book in the All Souls Trilogy, each volume hovering just under 600 pages.)

It begins with absence and desire…It begins with blood and fear. It begins with a discovery of witches.

About the book: Diana Bishop is a historian. adiscoveryofwitchesShe’s also a witch. Her parents–more witches–died brutally when she was seven, an event which convinced her of the dangers of magic, and prompted her to abandon hers. As an adult witch pretending to be human, she’s researching old alchemical texts for a keynote speech in Oxford, resisting the urge to use her buried sixth sense to learn more about the ancient manuscripts she studies. But she stumbles upon one volume that practically drips magic from its seams–and in handling it, she moves one of the biggest mysteries of her world into focus. As a horde of “creatures” flock to the library–and ultimately to Diana–to learn more about the book and gain access for themselves, her lack of control over her magic becomes a problem and she’s thrust into danger she doesn’t understand and can’t fight. The first vampire on the scene, Matthew Clairmont, understands better than everyone else that to open the ancient, lost book means protecting Diana–the only person who’s been able to access it in centuries. Love between species is forbidden by law, but something much more ancient and inevitable is at work with Matthew and Diana. The unlikely pair must find answers in each other, as the world around them crackles with erupting secrets and the first signs of war between the species emerge.

About the layout: Diana, our main character, narrates most of this book’s chapters in the first person. There are also a few chapters woven in that feature third person narration and move around between focus on different characters–usually Matthew, but not always. There’s always more to his story than what he shows on the surface, which makes him compelling to read, though Diana’s lack of magical knowledge makes her a better guide for the reader through the discoveries of this first book.

Marcus knew that a vampire’s life was measured not in hours or years but in secrets revealed and kept. Vampires guarded their personal relationships, the names they’d adopted, and the details of the many lives they’d lived.”

A large portion of this book seems highly concentrated on vampires and their role within this world, even though our main character is a witch. There are four branches of “creatures,” as they’re referred to, in this trilogy: humans, vampires, witches, and daemons. They all make appearances throughout the text, but without doubt there’s more information on vampires and their habits and current standing in this world than any of the other species. Eventually, as the reader knows she must, Diana stops trying to deny that she’s a witch and the vampire stories are mixed with details of how witch magic works and how it pertains to Diana. But it’s worth noting that this is a vampire-heavy novel. I think it comes down to Matthew and Diana’s relationship–from the very beginning, she makes concessions for all his odd behaviors because he’s a vampire and he’s been that way for a long time, while she’s planted herself between a witch’s life and a human one, which leaves her on uncertain ground. Thus, we see a lot more of her emotions and her acclimating to the presence of a vampire than anything witchy because it takes so long for her to commit to being a witch at all. And while she’s not learning about being a witch, she’s asking Matthew questions about vampirism, and the focus of the book is often pointed in that direction. Luckily, Matthew’s lived enough years that his vampire secrets are interesting.

“I wasn’t the same creature then, and I wouldn’t entirely trust my past selves with you.”

On romance: love between Matthew and Diana is not one of this book’s surprises, and it’s something I wish I had known before reading. I went looking for a fantasy book, but through hundreds of pages I found myself wondering whether the novel was a romance disguised as fantasy. There’s definitely fantasy, but it generally comes second, and the romance is immediately, utterly obvious. From the very beginning, the narration is clear on what’s building between our two main characters. Diana is startled and mildly frightened at being addressed by a vampire (seemingly the most dangerous of the four species), but she takes the time to note that he’s unbelievably handsome. He invites her to dinner and hints that he might see her around Oxford in that creepy vampire way that indicates he’ll probably be stalking her and creating “coincidental” meetings between them. The first time the narration focuses on him, he admits that he’s intrigued by Diana and he wants to stay close to her, but he absolutely definitely is not in love with her. These details (and many, many more) indicate that there’s going to be romantic intrigue here. If you don’t want to read a romance, this isn’t the fantasy book for you. That said, there’s not much sexual detail in this romance, it’s almost entirely gestures and looks and conversations, so it’s not raunchy in the way I would expect of a true romance, either.

Some things I didn’t like:

  • There’s way more description of meals and teas and wines than necessary.
  • Diana is sometimes okay with being ordered around and stalked and otherwise controlled by Matthew because she loves him.
  • For someone who claims not to be (and is also told by Matthew that she is not) a damsel in distress, Diana requires a lot of rescuing.
  • For a witch, even one who doesn’t want to use her power, Diana knows remarkably little about the “creatures” of her world.
  • Everyone is concerned about or in awe of Diana’s super magical witch powers, but she can’t use/control them. There’s an imbalance in the attention and the worthiness of attention.
  • Completely coincidentally, Diana finds a new abilities she can’t harness but can use for some emergency just at the time when she needs them.

Hence, I admit to problematic elements–mostly in Matthew and Diana’s relationship, in which Matthew wants all the power. But other than all the description of food/beverages, the narration does make attempts to explain most of the problematic areas, and I was left with the impression that some of these things might be fixed in the upcoming novels of the trilogy. I believe this is a series that demands to be read in full, if you’re determined to start at all.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’ll admit this trilogy is 100% a guilty pleasure. Romances are often guilty pleasures for me because I don’t read them for the reasons I usually read other books. This one repeatedly gave me the impression: “Twilight on steroids” a few times, which was worrisome, but the story kept me engaged regardless. I’m committed to finishing the trilogy because I think some of the issues I had will be addressed going forward, and I’m curious about where the plot is going, since there are many mysterious threads and a lack of answers in this first book.

Further recommendations:

  1. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander is the first (long) book in a (long) series that’s similar to A Discovery of Witches in that it’s a mix of fantasy/sci-fi and historical fiction. And romance, of course. An intense but challenging romance that’s very similar (minus the vampirism) to Matthew and Diana’s relationship.

What’s next: I’m currently reading White Fur by Jardine Libaire, one of my Book of the Month Club choices from their June selections. After nearly 600 pages of adult fantasy I’m ready for some lit fic. This one’s a (steamy for summer) star-crossed romance set in 1980’s New York.

What are you reading to kick off the summer?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: You can now read my review of the next book in this series, Shadow of Night!