Friday, May 29, 2020

Freeform Friday: The All Souls Trilogy (including A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, The Book of Life) - Deborah Harkness

We are scheduling our reviews so far out that I actually managed to read and review this entire trilogy
 before the first book review posted. 

So today's Freefrom Friday is a 3-for-1.
Just scroll to see all my reviews.  
Because why wait?  

A Discovery of Witches is the first book in the All Souls trilogy.   You can read Heather's review here.

Summary: Deep in the heart of Oxford's Bodleian Library, scholar Diana Bishop request a manuscript called Ashmole 782 in the course of her research.  Coming from an old and distinguished lineage of wishes, Diana senses that the ancient book might be bound up with magic -- but she herself wants nothing to do with sorcery; and after making a few notes on it's curious images, she banishes it quickly back to the stacks.  But what she doesn't know is that the old alchemical text has been lost for centuries, and its sudden appearance has set a fantastical underworld stirring.  Soon, a distracting horde of daemons, witches and vampires descends upon the Bodleian's reading rooms.  One of these creatures is Matthew Clairmont, an enigmatic and eminent geneticist, practitioner of yoga, and wine connoisseur -- and also a vampire with a keen interest in Ashmole 782.

Equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense, A Discovery of Witches is a novel of epic scope, traveling from the cobbled streets of Oxford to the chateaus and mountains of the Auvergne to a small town in upstate New York.  It also takes us into a rich fifteen hundred-year history that spans Clovis and the Crusades, the Knights Templar, and the American Revolution.  As Matthew and Diana's alliance deepens into intimacy, Diana must come to terms with age-old taboos and her own family's conflicted history -- and she must learn where the modern woman she is meets the source of ancient power that is her legacy.  With a scholar's depth and the touch of a great storyteller, Deborah Harkness has woven a tale of passion and obsession; the collision of magic, alchemy, and science; and the closely guarded secrets of an enchanted world. (Summary from book sleeve - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  A Discovery of Witches begins, as most good stories do, with a mysterious book.  Thought missing for 150 years, an ancient alchemical manuscript finds its way into the hands of Diana Bishop, an academic (and rather reluctant witch).  After a brief examination reveals the book's occult nature, Diana swiftly returns it to the library archive, having eschewed magic since her parents untimely death.  Now Diana's powers are starting to behave erratically and campus is crawling with otherworldly creatures, determined to obtain the book by any means necessary. One vampire in particular, Matthew Clairmont, becomes an unexpected ally and protector as Diana's magic begins to spiral out of control and enemies lurk around every corner..

[Insert dramatic music here]

When I read books for review, I often keep a bit of paper and a pen handy so that I can jot down any thoughts that might be relevant for the review.  There are several reasons why I might have a lot of notes on a book, but there is only one reason why I would have just a few.  A Discovery of Witches had my full attention from the very beginning, so while I might grasp clumsily for the right words as I write this review, it was totally worth it.  The story line was full of enchantment, intrigue, romance, delightful bits of history, and a few surprising twists.  The chemistry between Diana and Matthew was electric, and thankfully mostly PG (a little PG-13 in places).  I loved that while our 'hero' was rather protective (understatement of the century), Diana was anything but a helpless heroine.  Aside from the chemistry between the main characters, my favorite aspect of the book was some of the famous names in Matthew's past and Diana's delight at the his extensive collection of books and historical artifacts. I geeked out a bit.

In her review, Heather described this book as an "adult version of Twilight with a much more sophisticated writing style."  It does have a few of the same themes as Twilight (particularly that of the overly protective male vampire) and an infinitely better writing style, but A Discovery of Witches has so much more room for growth and development than anything set in Forks, WA.  It wasn't a quick read (579 pages) but I honestly didn't mind drawing it out a bit.  The book is definitely not a stand alone, but rather the first part of a much larger story.  I look forward to reading the next book in the trilogy, Shadow of Night.  It's already waiting for me at the library.

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader: There is kissing and a few scenes of mild intimacy, not particularly detailed but one is rather long (8 pages).  A few instances of profanity.  Those sensitive to stories about witches, demons, and vampires probably should look elsewhere.  Several secondary characters have same-sex partners, though the relationships are mentioned, but not explored.  

**UPDATE** If you're a sensitive reader, be sure to check out the ratings and 'sensitive reader' sections in the reviews below before you decide to pick up this book.)
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Shadow of Night is the second book in the All Souls Trilogy. 

Summary:  Book two of the All Souls trilogy plunges Diana and Matthew into Elizabethan London, a world of spies and subterfuge, and a coterie of Matthew's old friends, the mysterious School of Night.  The mission is to locate a witch to tutor Diana and to find traces of Ashmole 782, but as the net of Matthew's past tightens around them they embark on a very different journey, one that takes them into the heart of the fifteen-hundred-year-old vampire's shadowed history and secrets.  For Matthew Clairmont, time travel is no simple matter; nor is Diana's search for the key to understanding her legacy.

In Shadow of Night, Harkness again weaves a rich and splendid tapestry of alchemy, magic, and history.  The love story deepens as she takes us through the loop of time in a tale of blood, passion, and the knotted strands of the past to deliver one of the most hotly anticipated novels of the year.  (Summary from book sleeve - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  I picked up Shadow of Night not long after I finished its predecessor, A Discovery of Witches, eager for more of Matthew and Diana's story.  When we left off, Matthew and Diana had sought refuge in the Elizabethan Era so they might help Diana get a handle on her magic and find Ashmole 782 intact.  However, in a time when witch-burning is de rigueur, tracking down a willing witch turns out to be somewhat problematic and the mysterious book continues to elude them.

At the end of A Discovery of Witches, I wasn't entirely sold on the time traveling aspect of the story.  It was an unexpected dash of science fiction in what had been, up to that point, a thoroughly paranormal fantasy.  However, the further I dug into Shadow of Night, the more I enjoyed this little twist.  The last book hinted at Matthew's friendship with some of history's most famous figures, but this time I got to explore a bit, as Matthew and Diana traveled back to the 1590s and rubbed elbows with the likes of Kit Marlowe, Thomas Harriot, Sir Walter Raleigh, and more.  I also loved the addition of several new characters, even if they weren't historically relevant.  Real or imagined, it was eminently clear that the author put a crap-ton of time into researching not only historical figures, but also architecture, fashion, daily life, science, alchemy, philosophy, religion, and pretty much every other aspect of Elizabethan life, and the result was an exquisitely rendered setting I couldn't help love.

I don't read a lot of books with this type of magic as a major element, or at least it's been a while, so I can't speak with a great deal of authority on the matter, but I felt that the author's approach to it -- the way magic was shaped, controlled, described, felt, and wielded -- was done in a way that was that had definite depth and was far more compelling than the stereotypical ideas someone might have about witchcraft (ie cauldrons, hexes, and frog eyes).  It felt entirely new, rather than redone, and that isn't easy to accomplish.

I loved Matthew and Diana's chemistry, how neither character disappeared into the other, and their commitment to and concern for one another's well-being.  That having been said, as their relationship progressed, things got a bit more sexually graphic than I care to read and, eventually, I just started skimming over those parts.  There was enough unwanted detail (plus a lull in the plot partway through the book), that I have gone back and forth a bit on whether to continue reading in the series, but, ultimately, I would like to know the rest of Matthew and Diana's story even if I have to do a bit of skimming.

About halfway through the book, I feel like the story lost a little momentum but it picked up again and finished strong.  As with many 'bridge books'' (what I call the middle volume in a trilogy), quite a lot of threads are left loose at the end of this book and I am curious to see how things will get woven together.  I've put the final book in the trilogy The Book of Life on hold at the library and, if I finish it, I'll post my review below  -- so scroll down and at least have a look at the rating!

My Rating: 3.25 Stars.

For the sensitive reader:  There are a handful of swearwords and an equal number of 'sex scenes' in this book.  Some are fairly brief and others more graphic, to the point that I just skipped them. One character is in love with another character of the same gender, but the feelings are unrequited.  A miscarriage (not graphic).  As with the previous books, those sensitive to witchcraft, demons, and creatures of similar ilk should probably look elsewhere.

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The Book of Life is the third and final book in the All Souls Trilogy.

Summary: The great adventure culminates here.  Eagerly awaited by fans around the world, The Book of Life brings the magic and suspense of the All Souls Trilogy to a deeply satisfying conclusion.  What did the witches once discover?  Why was this secret encoded in a mysterious book called Ashmole 782 and then chased through the centuries by daemons, vampires, and the witches themselves?  How can spellbound witch Diana Bishop and vampire scientist Matthew Clairmont fulfill their love and their mission, on contested ground and with the weight of their very different histories pulling them apart?

In The Book of Life Diana and Matthew time travel back from Elizabethan London to make a dramatic return to the present -- facing new crises and old enemies.  At Matthew's ancestral home, Sept-Tours, they reunited with the beloved cast of characters from A Discovery of Witches -- with one significant exception.  But the real threat to their future has yet to be revealed, and when it is, the search for Ashmole 782 and its missing pages takes on even more urgency.

In the trilogy's final volume, Harkness deepens her themes of power and passion, family and caring ,past deeds and their present consequences.  In palatial homes and university laboratories, using ancient knowledge and modern science, from the hills of the Auvergne to Venice and beyond the couple at last learns what the witches discovered so many centuries ago.  (Summary from book sleeve - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  The Book of Life is a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the All Souls trilogy.  It continues the story of Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont, a paranormal power-couple who have returned to the present day much changed from their time in Elizabethan England, and in ways that will have far reaching repercussions for not only their families, but the entire witch/vampire/daemon and even human community.  The entire novel is well-paced, appropriately thrilling, and answers all the right questions but still leaves room for some expansion.

One of my favorite aspects of the story were Harkness's fascinating secondary characters.  My specific favorites were Gallowglass, Chris, Fernando, Sarah, Marcus, and Phoebe, as well as the Madison and London covens, and I enjoyed getting to know Ysabeau and Baldwin a bit better as well.  I loved how the characters interacted, not only with the main characters, but with each other, as there were clearly other untold stories going on behind the scenes.  It raised all sorts of questions about their histories and I am desperately hoping some of the characters will get their own spin-off book (I hear a Gallowglass one is in the works! Eek!) and the author has already released Time's Convert, which follows Marcus & Phoebe's story.  It isn't part of the trilogy, but isn't really a stand alone either, so I'm interested to see where it goes.

Another aspect of the story that I absolutely adored was the Bishop family house in Madison which has been its own kind of character in all three books.  It is possessed (quite literally) with a definite personality, a mischievous mind, and all kinds of secrets just waiting to be revealed.  The Madison house has been a favorite of mine through all three books, and I can't believe it's taken me till now to mention it.  Of everything else in the book, it is what felt the most 'magical' to me.

The worst part of the book, isn't really bad in any kind of a writing sense.  It's just unpleasant.  The antagonist is disturbingly unhinged (read: rapes women and kills children) in a Dr. Joseph Mengele fashion. For 'science.'  Due to certain spoiler related plot details, there was a greater sense of urgency in this story line than any of the others.  The stakes were just higher and once I hit a certain point I just plowed through this book.

I do think that The Book of Life is a great finish to the All Souls trilogy, and at least tied for first as far as plot, pacing, and characters go. In it, Diana fully embraces her power, let go of her fear, and kick some proverbial butt. It was glorious to behold.  Ultimately, I would recommend this series to anyone who likes romantic urban fantasy (with a dash of sci-fi) and isn't bothered by the stuff in the sensitive reader section(s).  Now, I'm off to get my hands on Time's Convert.

My Rating: 4.25

For the sensitive reader:  A few sexual situations between a married couple, but far less than in book two.  A few swear words of the F and A variety.  There are several (I think two) homosexual couples, but that doesn't really factor into the story in any 'sensitive reader' ways.  The bad guy is big into torture killing, so there is some violence as well, though not terribly graphic.  There are allusions to rape, but no actual detail.   Lots of vampires, witches, daemons, alchemy, and paganism, but I figure you wouldn't have made it this far if any of that bothered you.

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