Book Review: The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

Book of lifeI had imagined numerous ways ‘The Book of Life’ – Part III in the All Souls Trilogy- might end. So much so that I had this sudden urge to check if I had developed magical abilities. If I could have summoned the book into my hands, I would have done it. Two seconds of a chapter would have sufficed.  Alas I realized, I wasn’t a witch, there was no magical summoning, and no escaping the drudgery of a slow year. Characters blazed in and out as I re-read book one and two. Rich, vivid memories of both books swept me away in a fanciful re-visit into the world of this masterful creation, where witch and vampire hunt for Ashmole 782, an elusive, enchanted manuscript.

The narrative arc in this final chapter of the series, had a more natural ebb and flow which was quite unexpected. As new characters were interspersed with old, character strength shifted, some came to the forefront, others provided stability to the story and we played an emotional game of cat and mouse. The book that is ultimately about an amalgamation of opposites i.e. light and dark, sun and moon, silver and gold, witch and vampire, is also about family, hierarchy and love, that becomes inextricably tied to a circle of otherworldly beings, past and present, completely and utterly linked together.

I found the author’s meticulous research and singular attention to detail fascinating. It  evolved in a shared space between human/supernatural DNA, a quirky witches house brimming with herbs and strong female energy and high-tech vampire skills. Harkness is mirthful, serious and emotional as she blends science and magic into a colorful canvas of alchemical bliss.

In the two previous novels,Deborah Harkness molded and shaped her beautiful heroine into layers so distinct, her unwieldy power took its own journey. As it became supple, effortless and gentle, but overwhelmingly powerful, Diana Bishop’s metamorphosis became quite stunning. Her early days as a  witch was raw and tantalizing as she dashed between simultaneous bouts of intelligence and vulnerability, it belied the light she held within. A curious blend of historian and witch, Diana’s powers were suppressed and bound until circumstances- Ashmole 782 and a passionate relationship with a scientist vampire – turned her into a  knot weaving, fire drake carrying, battle worthy source of power.

I found the presence of Diana, Roman goddess of hunting, an interesting addition to the story.  Diana the witch is named after her. The goddess empowers Diana. She appears bathed in mystical silvery light, just as I had imagined in my readings of Roman mythology. Speaking only to her namesake, imbuing her powers with her goddess’ aura, her relationship with Diana although conditional, is benevolent in all its pagan glory. Saving Matthew’s life, handing her the gift of the gold and silver arrow, appearing when she most needs her, the goddess’ connection is important to Diana’s survival. It really is about the women in this series; vampires, witches, humans and daemons. Their remarkable ability to reinvent, protect and fight, I believe, carried the weight of the entire story.

Diana is pregnant. Using her time walking skills, she maneuvers their return home from 16th century England hoping to locate the missing pages of Ashmole 782, which in other words is the Book of Life. The pages of this book is woven from skins of vampires, witches, and daemons. It holds the secret to the origins of these other worldly beings. Upon their return to Sept-Tours, Matthew’s home in the Auvergne countryside, she is met with the death of a beloved aunt and a change in family dynamics. (It is a little difficult to keep up if you don’t know all the players. Reading a Discovery of Witches might help). The highly unlikable but enigmatic Baldwin takes over as head of the de Clermont family. And, as Diana is now the insightful, wise and powerful Phillipe de Clermont’s blood sworn daughter from their visit to Elizabethan England, Baldwin is officially her brother. Neither of them are pleased, nor are they particularly fond of co existing in that role of brother and sister, as they prepare for battle with the congregation interested in Diana’s growing powers, an entire army of vampires and with each other.

Aside from that, Matthew has become cantankerous as he rushes around trying to establish his scion, so he can gain some control of his own family. He is overly consumed with this need to extract DNA from the book and somehow cure his blood rage – Matthew’s inherited condition from Ysabeau, yes, it is as horrid as it sounds  – so he does not pass it on to any more beings. He is much less the handsome warrior like vampire we are used to. Diana carrying twins, and her newly discovered powers as a weaver, also brings Corra – her famliar.( generally an animal with whom the witch develops a magical connection). Corra is a fire drake, a dragon, as in Smaug in the Hobbit. And who wouldn’t want one of those on your side when facing an army of unfriendly vampires and witches working to destroy your family.

They are changed; as a couple, as vampire and witch and as people. They go from those early days of discovering what it was like to find love, to a darker space. I was hoping the author would maintain that early sensuality which drew me to the first novel, but the story line was such, that we were taken on a scientific journey, where the analysis of blood rage consumes one half of the book, while Diana loses her voice in other parts of the story. Her voice does return eventually, powerful and clear. Pregnancy notwithstanding, she is still the most powerful witch in the book, never to be underestimated. She stands extremely strong against the congregation in Venice and sort of beats them at their own game.

This book is largely about the power of evil that lurks in the darkest recesses of mind and body, capable of destroying everything one holds dear. It is filled with such hope of destruction, – I use the word “hope” because – the darker the narrative, the more hopeful the destructive elements become. I want to keep my eyes open in the dark even when light refuses its power. While the evil isn’t completely unexpected, its capabilities are unimaginable.

Benjamin. There is now an interesting face and identity.

Benjamin has blood rage. He is Matthew’s son. He rapes and infects as he seeks to destroy Matthew’s family and create his own race of hybrid vampire witches. It reads briefly like an episode of Vampire Diaries but I promise you, it is much more.

I won’t be retelling the story because I’ve already revealed the important bits. The cast of characters however are essential to the flow of the story. One that really stood out, one I badly want in his own story, with his own flaws to mend, wounds to heal and a mate to find, is Gallowglass. I’m not sure if it is the fact that I love author Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books, or if it is because I’m finally watching the book reinvented for t.v. or it is just my love of Scotland. This Scottish vampire takes over the book like a moth to a flame, like bees to honey, like… um well, you get the drift. It is Gallowglass that made me enjoy the book that much more, his humor, his charm, that lilting way he calls Diana, auntie makes this character so appealing. Gallowglass has a kind voice, wisdom and heart to give, he deserves his own journey.

Fernando is another character I grew to love. He is mentioned in the first book but has no character. When we meet him, his voice is different; soothing, wise, strong. A necessary cup of tea when tensions threaten to overwhelm. Marcus, Matthew’s son, finally steps out of his box. His voice has leadership and power. He fights, stands his ground and finds a mate. And then, there is Jack. A little boy with floppy hair who captured my attention in book two. He returns an adult. Sweet and wild, Jack is the glue that seems to hold several pieces of the story together. My favorite interactions are between Diana and her aunt Sarah. There is herb lore and spells, there are interesting explanations about weavers and bindings when they work together. It is a refreshing change from vampire DNA study.

As a reader who went on this journey with Harkness and her characters, I walked to the end with a sense of finality but not sadness. It was time. What Diana’s parents foresaw in the previous books was enchanting, it was fun to watch how it all came together. I did not enjoy dealing with that terrible affliction – blood rage, although I understood why it was essential to the plot. I did not enjoy Baldwin and Verin, in fact I never understood her. I wish the other brother Hugh was alive instead. Yet, the entire cast made the  evolution possible; bridging that interesting dichotomy between alchemy and science.

It takes much talent to elicit any sort of emotion or connection to a character when writing any type of genre. Deborah Harkness has been tremendously successful in this genre of fantasy fiction. In keeping her characters alive,bringing her knowledge of witches lore to the forefront, and beautifully juxtaposing this notion of a chemical marriage between two otherworldly, powerful beings, she binds her tale dusting it with family politics, a fictitious covenant and magic bringing her series to a fitting end. I have the strangest feeling this is not the end for Diana Bishop and her extraordinary family, for while opposites work well in cohesion, there is always an element of imbalance from which a new story breathes life.

Book – The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

  • Hard cover, 561 pages
  • Published by,Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group(USA)
  • First Edition, 2014
  • ISBN 978-0-670-02559-6
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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

  1. Yippee–a great book suggestion! So happy for the review, but even happier that thought of me during my months away. You’re a sweetie!

    So, yeah, I’ve been gone all summer. We moved across town but just got our internet two days ago–I kid you not! LONGGGGG STORY!

    Hope you had an awesome weekend!

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

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    • Oh my goshhhh Kathy, I’ve missed you, missed your art! So happy you’re back
      .. Whaaat? I can’t wait to hear what happened with the internet. Although I imagine it could not have been easy setting it up. I can’t wait to see photos of your new place… Welcome back my friend and thank you for checking out my review… I love my books as you know and I know you do too!
      Hugs

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  2. MM, I had no idea you’re a fan of this series. The publisher sent a copy of the book to my office and I ended up giving it away, since I hadn’t read the first two. Maybe I’ll get them on kindle, as I trust your judgement, seeing how we have so many TV shows in common. Do you watch The Good Wife or Parenthood by any chance?

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    • Monica, I pre- ordered my book as soon as I knew I could – it was a loooong wait. I loved the first book, not the second so much. Liked the series not so much for the Twilight( wish they didn’t) Harry Potter references( big fan of HP) but for the unique storyline. I think you might enjoy the first book and if you make a connection with the characters, you might like the second book( the second is worth just for its Elizabethan setting and characters like Walter Raleigh+ Christopher Marlowe).

      You watch The Good Wife and Parenthood too? I love it! We really do have so much in common. I’m savoring every episode of Parenthood because it is the final season and wow! the writing on The Good Wife is fantastic isn’t it?

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