Creature Triple Feature; Deborah Harkness’ The Book of Life

I have now finished reading the third volume of Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy titled The Book of Life.

First I would recommend to those just now jumping in at the beginning to start with volume one and read the trilogy straight through.  It is not a novel with two sequels.  It is one continuing story.  I had read the first two entries last year.  Coming to part three this much later was a little difficult.  I spent a significant amount of time in the first few chapters saying, “Who is Baldwin?  Who is Fernando?  Remind why there is a tree growing in the fireplace? “

Overall I would grant this trilogy the accolade of a very entertaining romp.  Although it revolves around the exploits of vampires, witches and daemons it is not a horror novel.  It is a fantasy/romance/adventure.  Diana, a reluctant witch, manages to call forth a book from the bowels of the Bodleian Library at Oxford that turns out to be more than she bargained for.  The moment the book is called forth the three major races of creatures (other than human) go on full alert.  All want this book.  Some want it for what it will tell them about the origin of the races of creatures.  Others want to suppress it out of fear of what it will reveal.  All of this leads to one undisputable fact; Diana’s life is now in danger.  One big problem arises when she returns the book to the stacks only to find it impossible to retrieve it a second time.  Enter Matthew de Clairmont, a vampire who is centuries old, a devout Catholic, a Fellow at Oxford, a research scientist, and —let me see what else—oh yeah, he’s drop dead handsome.  Matthew makes himself Diana’s protector for very selfish reasons.  Basically, he wants her alive long enough to find the book again.

But of course, time and nature intervene and they fall in love.  This is forbidden.  Vampires and Witches don’t socialize must less fall in love.  Complications arise when Diana finds herself pregnant with Matthew’s children; a very dicey situation since vampires are not able to procreate.  Picture a mixed race couple in 1950s Mississippi and you have the tone not only of the relationship, but also of the theme of the trilogy.  While there is lots of time travel, chases, murder and torture, cliffhangers galore, magic, and romance the story attempts to be a statement on race relations and bigotry.

My second bit of advice is to read it for the adventure and romance.  The bigotry and race theme is a bit sophomoric and Harkness adds nothing new to that often rung bell.

Though mostly enjoyable there are some flaws.

  • Harkness can at times lapse into sentimentality. Romance is fine.  Nostalgia can be fun.  Depicting love and adoration among characters can be very effective.  But unrelenting sentimentality is almost an unforgivable sin in the world of literature.  One such moment occurs at, of all places, the very suspenseful climax of the trilogy.  Diana is about to stand her ground and prove her place as the strongest witch ever to have lived.  Striking up pluck to take out one of the most horrid villains in contemporary literature (seriously, he makes Hannibal Lechter look like a dinner guest) she suddenly sees the ghost of her beloved father who looks her in the eye and says, “Are you ready to do this, Peanut?”  At that point I almost tore the page out of the book.
  • Vampires who are devout Catholics. As a Catholic myself I was happy to see Harkness give us a nod in a more or less positive mode.  But I had trouble reconciling the life of a vampire and all that entails with the practice of following Christ.  I let it ride while I read the book but the scenes where this took center stage required more suspension of disbelief than the rest of the story.
  • I felt cheated out of a key scene. Toward the end of the book we have Diana in a key political position among the world of creatures.  She enters the chambers where the ruling class gathers to pass their laws with the intent of overturning a very old law.  We see her entering the chambers and the next thing we are given is the result of the meeting.  What happened to the debate that had to have taken place in the chambers?  That could have been a very powerful and riveting series of events and would have given her a chance to more fully expand her theme on bigotry.  But the reader is never let in.  We never get to see how the opposing parties battle it out.

Certainly read this trilogy if you are looking for light entertainment.  But if you want a creature series that makes you think and ponder you’re better off with Anne Rice.

©2014 M. Romeo LaFlamme


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