A review of Shadow Of Night By Deborah Harkness

By Sara Hodon

Shadow of Night
by Deborah Harkness
Penguin Books
Paperback: 592 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0143123620, May 28, 2013

Deborah Harkness first introduced readers to Matthew Clairmont, a vampire geneticist, and Diana Bishop, a Yale-educated historian who happens to be a witch who has yet to realize her full power, in A Discovery of Witches. In its sprawling sequel, Shadow of Night, Harkness delves even further into the story of these two characters—primarily Matthew. He and Diana travel back in time to revisit some people and places that he would happily leave in the past all in the name of gathering information to secure their futures.

The heart of both books is Ashmole 782, an enchanted manuscript said to contain alchemical formulas, critical drawings, and important information about supernatural creatures—namely witches, vampires, and daemons.  Diana obtains this manuscript in A Discovery of Witches one day in Oxford’s Bodleian Library purely by accident—one day while sitting down to work on some research, the manuscript is placed in a stack of ordinary books that Diana has requested. Although Diana senses this book is different, out of ignorance of the book’s information and her own magical powers, she returns it to the stacks when the day’s research is completed. This proves to be a crucial mistake—one that will set the underworld abuzz and bring Matthew Clairmont into her life. At first his interest in her seems more like curiosity, or perhaps caution, and nothing more, but as the book progresses, he confesses that he basically fell in love with Diana at first sight. Diana is more reluctant to share her feelings, but eventually relents. By falling in love, Matthew and Diana break a centuries-old covenant forbidding magical creatures of different origins—he a vampire and she a witch—to fall in love, let alone marry. But these characters seem to defy convention at every opportunity.

In A Discovery of Witches, Diana nearly dies at the hands of a sinister witch because of the manuscript. In Shadow of Night, Diana and Matthew seek to discover the book’s origins. Once Diana accepts herself as a witch with unique powers, her next challenge is to learn how to manage them. Her well-meaning but somewhat inept aunt and her partner attempt to help her, but they later discover that Diana’s suppressed powers are beyond her aunt’s knowledge. Diana learns that she is a “timewalker”, or a witch who can travel through time, and so she and Matthew decide to use these powers to their advantage. They decide to travel to the year 1590, when the Ashmole 782 manuscript was believed to be written, to try to find its author and hopefully find a witch who can school Diana in her spells and magic. When Shadow of Night begins, Matthew and Diana have arrived in Elizabethan England.

Shadow of Night is densely packed—with characters, including some directly from history, like Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, and Queen Elizabeth I (who is as demanding, straightforward, and liberal as she is portrayed in history books), as well as an ample cast of mystical and mythical creatures, and action sequences, all of which work together to create a complicated, multi-layered plot. At times it does become difficult to keep track of the various characters, but a helpful “Dramatis Personae” in the back of the book makes it a bit easier (as long as you don’t mind flipping back and forth).  Shadow of Night is not quite as straightforward as the first book. As a vampire, Matthew Clairmont has undergone numerous name and professional changes over the centuries, and it seems as if Diana will never get to the bottom of the dozens of lives her husband has led over the years. Bits and pieces of his past lives pop up unexpectedly when he and Diana travel back in time—much more than they did in the present, where Matthew has a highly-respected professional reputation in academia, but is otherwise fairly anonymous. In the first book, Diana discovers that Matthew is the leader of an ancient order of vampiric knights, but soon learns that this is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Considering Matthew’s long life, it’s not hard to accept that he has survived several lifetimes and assumed many identities. It seems contradictory that Matthew swears allegiance to Diana when they become man and wife, which means complete loyalty and honesty, yet his past lives seem endless—Diana seems to learn something new about her husband every few pages. Diana finds herself completely out of her element in 1590. She is faced with learning how to harness and manage her witchly powers, adjust to life as a newlywed to a vampire against incredible odds, and simply accept her role as a woman (and subordinate) in her household.

It’s clear that Harkness did her research for Shadow of Night. As a professor of history, her professional credentials were put to good use. The novel offers a look into everyday household life in Renaissance England (as “everyday” as it can be for one of Queen Elizabeth’s most valuable spies who happens to be a vampire) with historically accurate details, and Harkness also calls into question many myths and legends surrounding mythical creatures. For example, Diana isn’t a witch prone to flying around on broomsticks. Matthew often sleeps in bed with his wife, not in a cold and creepy coffin. Daemons, likely one of the least-represented (and therefore, the most misunderstood) supernatural beings in literature, are described by one of the characters in A Discovery of Witches as “perpetual teenagers who couldn’t be trusted” (24). Oddly enough (but perhaps not surprisingly for literature aficionados), Kit Marlowe is outed as a daemon in Shadow of Night.

It is virtually impossible to summarize all of the happenings in Shadow of Night in just a few paragraphs. The sprawling, 579-page work is dazzling in its detail, all-encompassing in its depth, and chock full of well-rounded characters who possess more than a few secrets and flaws.  Shadow of Night is the second book in Harkness’ All Souls trilogy, and readers will definitely want to pick up A Discovery of Witches first—Shadow of Night does not serve as a standalone book very well. Harkness references important details from the first book in order to put the plot of Shadow of Night in some perspective, but I was glad I also read the first book. Its sequel is firmly set in its own time of 1590, but I felt that having the foundation of the first book was critical.

For fans of literary fiction with a liberal helping of the supernatural, fantasy, and history, Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy, with Shadow of Night as the centerpiece, should easily satisfy readers’ appetites.

About the reviewer: Sara Hodon’s work has appeared in History, Young Money, WritersWeekly.com, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley College’s Magazine, among others. She is also the “Date and Relate” columnist for Online Dating Magazine (www.onlinedatingmagazine.com). Read more about her trials and triumphs in the writing life on her blog, http://adventuresinthewritinglife.blogspot.com