Ms Kanta

Voracious reader and DPhil candidate blogs about books and scholarly life.

Ambitious ending that hammers home the antiracist message

The Book of Life
Deborah Harkness

Deborah Harkness’s All Souls trilogy has been met with mixed reviews all round, though the fans seem to have enthusiastically embraced her debut A Discovery of Witches (2010) and its sequel Shadow of Night (2012). The final instalment of the trilogy, The Book of Life, was published this year, and is an ambitious ending that tries to drive home several messages concerning social justice in a non-magical world through the fantastical parallels laid out in the first two novels.Book of Life cover

Diana, the heroine of the previous two books, is now happily married to fifteen-hundred-year-old vampire Matthew and is expecting twins. They divide their time between trying to get Diana accepted as a full-fledged family member and finding the Book of Life, the discovery with which Diana’s story began two books ago. A few of Matthew’s vampire sons from a few centuries ago – Diana does not once comment on her seriously weird position as a young, pregnant great-grandmother in this book – return to the stage as more people try to figure out how a vampire managed to get a witch pregnant and what kind of offspring could be produced by such a union.

For those who think the story smells like the halfway point between Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey: thank god, it’s not. This story is grown-up without the smut and delivers fantasy without the glitter. The book goes beyond the single-minded viewpoint of a couple in love, preferring to emphasise the point it tries to make on racism. At times, the plot twists Harkness makes to get to this conclusion feel artificial: without giving away the plot, it must be said that the blood rage disease becomes a lot tamer by the end of the series.

In The Book of Life Harkness experiments with different points of view, a choice the book may have been better off without. Though Diana is the first-person narrator for most of the time, some chapters are written from a third-person point of view in which it is not always immediately sure through whose eyes we are looking: Matthew, Gallowglass and Ysabeau all share their thoughts at some point. Having written these parts in the third person makes them confusing to read: we don’t have as much access to the character’s thoughts as a first-person point of view would show us, which makes Diana still the only character really known to the reader. The perspective shifts also don’t add much information, since most scenes described in the third person still include Diana in it.

The conclusion of the trilogy is an interesting fusion of quite random snippets of biomedical science and magical politics. Diana comes to admit that magic is more powerful than science, but her motivations for this conclusion are not clear at all: she seems to have magically sensed the true importance of the Book of Life, but she does not reveal this to anyone – including the reader – before her friend Chris in his Yale laboratory has drawn the same conclusions. The series is a clever mix of history, modern science and fantasy, and The Book of Life is the conclusion to a series that is much more intelligent and interesting than many of the more popular fantasy books it resembles.

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