The charm in Deborah Harkness’s wildly successful All Souls trilogy lies not merely in the spells that its creature characters cast as they lurk pretty much in plain sight of humans, but in the adroit way Harkness has insinuated her world of demons, witches, and vampires into ours. As has been frequently noticed, it’s not unlike J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potterverse of wizards, witches, and muggles, but since hers are novels for adults, Harkness gets away with double entendres and PDAs (private displays of affection) that would make Harry, Hermione, and Ron blush.
With 2011’s “A Discovery of Witches,” 2012’s “Shadow of Night,” and now “The Book of Life,” Harkness tracks the fiery romance of historian-witch Diana Bishop and scientist-vampire Matthew Clairmont and their quest to discover the secrets hidden in a mysterious manuscript. After their magic-infused, meet-cute in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library and their dalliance in Elizabethan London (with none other than Christopher Marlowe and Walter Raleigh as besties), “The Book of Life” finds them back in 21st-century France with Matthew’s formidable and over-protective family who, as a friend wryly notes, “could teach MI6 a thing or two about secrets.”
From the novel’s poignant opening, Harkness casts her own indelible spell of enchantment, heartbreak, and resilience. An academic by day with specialities in science and medicine and a clear passion for alchemy, Harkness is terrific at bringing her magic world to life, maintaining a fast-paced, page-turning narrative for the bulk of the book.
While the involved plot — encompassing bewitched books, missing pages, genetics, racism, and gone-horribly-rogue vampires — provides plenty of compelling brain twisters, a large part of the pleasure here is the way in which Harkness substantiates the normalcy of her demon-vampire-witch universe.
From passing observations such as vampire families being “large and noisy” and family gatherings in small rooms filling with “vampires and testosterone” to more involved set pieces such as Diana and Matthew arguing over who is going to be wearing the pants in their particular witch-vampire relationship, Harkness has her entertaining and revealing details down pat.
These creatures don’t just pass among us; they also hang out in the unlikeliest of places. Yes, they tend to jet-set from French castles to Venetian palazzi, but they also run most of London’s cab companies and staff important universities. One coven in Hamilton, N.Y., includes a witch teaching anthropology at Colgate University, another one teaching high school chemistry, and at the local grocery store, its members know what’s on your shopping list before you’ve taken it out of your purse.
It’s a great setup for one-liners: When Diana’s familiar, a firedrake (two-legged dragon), returns with her from the past scattering sparks inside the castle, an exasperated friend scolds, “Honestly, Diana, couldn’t you have brought something from Elizabethan England that wasn’t so much trouble?” cuing the inevitable response, “Like what? A snow globe?” At another point, Diana uses a disguising spell to obscure her telltale witch’s glow, diminishing some of her beauty as well. “I can’t go around the university shimmering,” she tells a sulky Matthew. “And I can’t go around killing people even though I have blood rage,” he retorts. “We all have our crosses to bear.”
But Harkness delves deeper, too, conjuring immersive images such as Diana “reading” a world beyond words on paper: “When my fingertips reached the final letter, I dragged them across the surface of the envelope, pulling at the letters so that they unraveled. First there was a pool of black on the envelope, and then the ink resolved into the image of a man’s face. It was still beautiful, though ravaged with pain and marred by a deep, empty socket where once a tawny eye had shimmered with intelligence and humor.”
My only gripe is that the narrative becomes disconcertingly jumpy toward the end. Despite that, there’s clarity and resolve in the denouement, as well as a perceptive acknowledgment of the real secret to survival.
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.