Monday, 9 July 2012

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

First of all, if you haven't yet read A Discovery of Witches, you shouldn't be here. Go away. Shoo. Nothing to see here. Now we've got that over, and established that only bona fide followers of Matthew and Diana's adventures are reading this while eagerly awaiting delivery of your copies of Shadow of Night (because it's not published until tomorrow, 10 July), let me assure you that from here on I'll be careful what I say because I really don't want to spoil any of the fun for you.

So, we all knew that this installment was going to follow Diana and Matthew back to his house in Woodstock in 1590, where they are going to find Matthew's friends - some of the most prominent thinkers of their age are going to put in appearances, human, daemons and vampires (here called wearhs, because the word vampire didn't appear until much later). They are seeking a witch who can help Diana discover and control her newly emerging powers, creating for themselves a breathing space before they deal with members of the Congregation in their present-day lives, and hoping that they might find the manuscript Ashmole 782 that brought them together in the first place and is now lost again in the depths of the Bodleian library. They really need some safe time together as well, unthreatened by creatures like the vampire Juliette, who nearly proved to be their downfall before they left the present. But there are unknowns - Diana has been warned that, back among his closest friends, Matthew may become more an Elizabethan than a modern man: if vampires are already predisposed to autocratic behaviour, what will happen when they are living in a society where woman have little control over their lives? And how will those companions, members of the group known as the School of Night, take to a woman as strong-minded as Diana? Moreover, she won't be able to hide from them - or not from all of them - that she's a witch and, while England under Elizabeth wasn't the time of the most fervent witchhunts, they were still feared and reviled. So Diana is at risk, both as a result of her proscribed relationship with Matthew and because of her witchcraft.

All this offers the author a wonderful opportunity to explore her characters within a different setting, and at the same time to pen portraits of real people such as George Chapman, the gentle Henry Percy, the volatile and devious Christopher Marlowe (here a daemon) and the ever-fascinating John Dee. With her historian's eye for detail, Harkness also gives us a picture of daily life in 16th-century England - I must admit to absolutely lapping up the domestic minutiae, the shopping for cabbages and complaints about the laundry bills and could happily have had more of it, though I wish people would stay away from dance, because they always get it wrong! Oh, and while I'm nitpicking ever so slightly, I'm not comfortable with the use of the word "feisty" in a historical setting. Even if it's Diana's translation of Matthew's description of her (as well as Elizabethan English, she is called on to try to communicate in French, Latin, Spanish, Occitàn and German at times), it feels wrong - not only is it not a 16th-century word, it's not a 16th-century concept, and would only convey a negative to others; "shrew" would probably be closest. Not flattering.

Anyway, even in this time, present-day anxieties intrude: the Congregation exists in both timeframes, as does the covenant that forbids their relationship. It's difficult to know whom amongst the creatures to trust, and the humans pursue their own ends. Just as the Congregation's reach extends throughout Europe, so Diana and Matthew find themselves caught up in political intrigue and machination. There are domestic difficulties too, within their own, suddenly enlarged, household - privacy was almost unheard of in Elizabethan England - but Diana has modern sensibilities, even if Matthew is more used to living with an extended family and entourage, and new marriages require space for people to adapt to living together. The vampire's need to protect and control is an inevitable cause of conflict, especially as Diana becomes more confident in her new setting - for the first time she can explore alchemy on a practical level, and she must learn more about her magic to survive. There's an awareness, too, that they can't be entirely hidden from the modern Congregation even in the past.

Considering that the death of the novel is confidently predicted almost daily, there have been a surprising number of these high-end fantasies about intelligent women of late. I've read several, and I started to wonder what it is that makes this one so successful. While its non-human characters make it very much of its time - caring vampires are so 21st century! - in many ways the All Souls trilogy reminds me most of Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond and Niccoló chronicles. These are less complex but share some of the brio of those works and the sense of the author's involvement with the period and her extensive research - though in Harkness's case it has a rather narrower focus, on the histories of science and magic. The characterisation is a strength too, and the gradual revealing of personal secrets. There's also a quiet humour in the writing - no laugh-out-loud moments, or broad comedy, no grand set pieces that turn from hilarity to tragedy in a moment, à la Dunnett, but amusement at foibles and a gentle playfulness between certain of the characters that amuses and lends a sense of reality - that sort of humour, between rather than about, doesn't always work in novels; it can feel very contrived, but here it seems natural and unforced.

One thing I can tell you about Shadow of Night: you are going to want to put everything on hold while you read it, it's every bit as compelling as A Discovery of Witches, and you are going to resent every minute you spend doing something else. Now I've finished it, Part 3 seems a very long way off!


  1. I really enjoyed A Discovery of Witches and look forward to this one!

  2. You've sold it to me with the comparison with my beloved Dunnett. I have some catching up to do as I haven't read A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES. Thanks for bringing this to my atention. :-)