BOOK REVIEW: Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

When fans of Deborah Harkness’ best-selling 2011 novel A Discovery of Witches last heard from their favorite witch-vampire couple, Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont, the two were on the verge of a magical adventure. Using Diana’s gift for timewalking and hoping to land in England in the year 1590 to solve the mystery of the lost alchemy book, “Ashmole 782,” they “stepped into the unknown.”

The second book in Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy, Shadow of Night, was released today, and true to the author’s word in an interview for the North County Times last year, “The second book picks up right where the first book leaves off.”

Diana reports in the first line of Shadow of Night that, “We arrived in an undignified heap of witch and vampire” in Matthew’s 16th century hunting lodge in Oxfordshire, England.

As their senses adjust to the sights and sounds, the smells and textures — and the social mores — of Elizabethan England, so too do those of the reader, and this is one of Harkness’ greatest gifts as a writer: her ability to create a setting so believable, so rich in period detail, so distinct from the first novel’s 21st century setting that the reader experiences the unsettling shifts in time and tone and the gradual enculturation into the past era along with the characters.

A professor specializing in the history of science and medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Harkness has created in her trilogy a smart and entertaining blend of historical realism, bright imagination and complexly structured fantasy that challenges the teen angst and sexual escapades of other popular books in the genre. Hers is much more akin to Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian than to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight.

That’s not to say that Diana and Matthew’s romance is not well represented in action. It is, but with finesse and moderation.

Harkness’ graceful touch is also reflected in her presentation of the gay and lesbian characters in her books. Their sexuality is secondary to their roles in the story, and she gives them quite human dimensions, a refreshing contrast to the stereotypical renditions of gay characters still prevalent in much U.S. media.

Equally refreshing are the strong and colorful female characters in the book. From Diana to Matthew’s vampire mother Ysabeau, Harkness’ females are mostly powerful and competent — or powerful and villainous. The only shrinking violet in the bunch, Diana’s young maid Annie Undercroft, is, by the end of the book, developing a sense of self. Although the trilogy is adult fiction, the female protagonists could serve as strong role models for the young adult audience.

Some readers might at times wish for more action and less detail about archaic recipes for headache cures, Elizabethan political intrigue, and alchemic formulas, and there are some sections of Shadow of Night dense with such specifics. But for readers with a penchant for the era and the heart for fantasy, Harkness' All Souls Trilogy is as delightful a journey into the past as it is an adventure into the fanciful cultures and conflicts between supernatural creatures.

There is not yet a release date for book three, although Warner Brothers Pictures has acquired the trilogy’s film rights, but Shadow of Night sets the stage for what is likely to be a magical and mighty battle.

Publisher: Viking Binding: hardcover Pages: 584 Price: $28.95, ebook prices vary Author website: deborahharkness.com

Crossposted at the North County Times.