Jill’s review of Deborah Harkness’s The Book of Life

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First off, I want to apologize for not writing a progress report on The Book of Life. I was really busy reading it and didn’t want to stop. I was fortunate enough to have many hours spent riding shotgun in cars over the holiday weekend and plugged through it really quickly. I wish that I had reread A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night prior to reading the last volume in the trilogy because I, like Bethany, didn’t remember quite a few of the supporting characters from the prior books when I started this one. I, also like Bethany, found myself missing the sixteenth century during the reading of The Book of Life, as did Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont. I think that Shadow of Night was probably my favorite in the trilogy, but I didn’t necessarily feel that The Book of Life was the weakest link, either.

I happily admit that I needed the exposition at the beginning of this novel. I found it extremely helpful. If I had more recently read the first two books, however, I probably would have found it annoying. Such is the life of a professional book reader; we need what we need and have no qualms about complaining about something that may be helpful to other readers. Diana and Matthew are immediately swept back into the dramas of their day-to-day academic lives and Diana is forced to come to terms with having a very, very overprotective husband in her life in New Haven, and at the family farm in Madison. What has always impressed me with this series is the vast attention to detail Harkness has. We visit Diana’s good friend Chris in his genetics lab at Yale, and even though she is a history professor, her descriptions of the lab and its procedures reminded me so much of all the labs I’ve spent time in over the years. She obviously did her research. Along the “attention to detail” lines, in all my years of reading fantasy fiction, I don’t know that I’ve ever come across a more detailed and complete supernatural creature mythology, complete with laws and an origin story (though I feel like we should have gotten to learn more about what was in Ashmole 782—I learned just enough to want more) and a governing body, called the Congregation, and definite rules about interactions with each other and humans. Kim Harrison’s The Hollows comes close, but she’s had thirteen books to make her world. Harkness did it in three.

I was a tiny bit disappointed that there was no TIME TRAVEL in this installment, but there was plenty of regular travel. I lost track of the number of times Matthew and Diana crossed the Atlantic in this book. They started at Sept-Tours. Then they were off to Madison, then to New Haven, then Matthew went to New Orleans and Diana went to London. Then they were back in Sept-Tours and then back to London. Then to Venice and various spots in Central Europe. I think there was another trip to France in there as well. There was perhaps a bit too much bouncing around, but all the travel seemed relevant to the plot(s). We do get a brief glimpse of sixteenth century London via Diana’s third eye, though it is disappointing that Matthew doesn’t get to see it with her.

And what are Matthew and Diana and their entourage of creatures and humans up to during all this globe trotting, you ask? So many things. To try to sort out all the plots and subplots is possibly beyond the scope of this post, but I’ll give it a try. In the end it all seems to boil down to the simplest (and also the most complex) of questions: where did we come from? Harkness’s version of the origins of “creatures” blends magic and science in a very satisfying way. I’m glad she elected to bring DNA and genetics labs into the mix. This is thinking people’s fantasy right here.

The heart of the story is really Diana’s coming into her own as a witch, wife, and mother. At the beginning of A Discovery of Witches she is alone in her life. By the end of The Book of Life her life is so full that she isn’t even alone in her own skin. I do think that Harkness got a bit carried away with the, um, changes to Diana’s appearance, but these changes are very vividly described, and I do appreciate her efforts. One thing—perhaps it’s too much to hope for that Diana manages to have a successful career, a happy marriage, two beautiful children, tons of friends and family, a position on the Congregation, and everything else she’s up to. I guess anything is possible with magic and virtually unlimited funds. That’s my snarky comment for the day. I mean seriously, why are all vampires multimillionaires?

There is so much to talk about in The Book of Life. But I don’t want to ruin it for anyone, so just go read it and then comment on this post, okay?

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6 Responses to Jill’s review of Deborah Harkness’s The Book of Life

  1. bedstrom says:

    I don’t think I’ve told you yet (but apologies if I have) that when Kate and I went to hear Deborah Harkness speak, she said that in her opinion Ashmole 782 is “a character.” Specifically, she said that her trilogy was a “ménage-a-trois between three characters: Diana, Matthew, and Ashmople 782.” Then she flatly said that she would accept no disagreements with that basic fact. She pointed out that Book 1 is about Diana (hence “Witches” in the title), Book 2 is about Matthew (since “Shadow” Queen Elizabeth’s nickname for him), and Book 3 is about Ashmole 782, or the book of life. Kate and I spent a good long while talking about what an unspeakably bad way that is to lay out a trilogy, and I think this may be one of several reasons that The Book of Life is the least compelling of the three.

  2. bedstrom says:

    Also, I think all vampires are multimillionaires because of compounded interest. They’ve just been investing for hundreds and hundreds of years. I wasn’t sure if that was a real question or a hypothetical one.

  3. bedstrom says:

    And by hypothetical I meant rhetorical.

  4. badkitty1016 says:

    Yes, it was meant as a rhetorical question, but at the same time why aren’t there any like blue collar vampires except in the Charlaine Harris books?

  5. bedstrom says:

    I guess because of the long passage of time. Even if vampires were blue collar when they were alive, after a certain number of decades or centuries they figure out how to get themselves into a more financially secure position and do so. I don’t think I’ve met any blue collar vampires in Charlaine Harris yet. They all seem to have estates out in the middle of the woods.

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