Book Review: The All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness

Have you read Deborah Harkness’s A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES yet? If not, why not?

It’s okay if you haven’t. I’m late to the party, too. The first book was published almost six years ago and I didn’t know about it until last year. You could have asked me that question a little over a year ago I wouldn’t have had a good answer. “I don’t know,” I would have said with a shrug. “What’s so great about it?”

A) A Yale history professor who happens to be a witch in denial spending a year in Oxford researching medieval manuscripts about alchemy?

B) A yoga-practicing Oxford genetics professor who happens to be a 1,500 year old vampire doing genetics research on the origins of “creatures” aka vampires, witches, and daemons?

C) An enchanted book with a mysterious palimpsest hidden deep in the stacks of one of Oxford’s oldest libraries that details the origins of alchemical transformations?

D) All of the above?

If you guessed (D) All of the above, my friend, you are correct.

Discovery of Witches

The ALL SOULS trilogy, beginning with A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES, is an absolute smash hit that may come close to being one of my favorite series of all time. (Only time will tell. Like an Ent, I take a long time to decide which books fit in my prestigious “favorite books” shelf.) The first book was captivating from an intellectual and a romantic perspective; the second built on the first, taking us back in time to the 16th century and exploring a whole new dimension of the world; the third, an unparalleled finish to a series, brought our heroine and hero to new understandings of self, science, and society.

A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES begins as spellbound witch Diana Bishop, a Yale historian on sabbatical to study in Oxford, pulls a magical and mysterious book from the shelves of the ancient Bodelian library. The book, enchanted as it is, immediately draws the attention of dozens of other “creatures” – daemons, witches, and vampires – and suddenly Diana finds herself in the spotlight. Trying to avoid the unwanted attention from a world she’s spent her life hiding from, she retreats to her research and her exercise routine, but there’s one creature she can’t avoid: Matthew Clairmont. A world-famous, incredibly intelligent, and disgustingly rich vampire  who coincidentally also heads a secret vampire order called the Knights of Lazarus (what else does one do over fifteen centuries of life but make war, invest wisely, and learn about things?)

Matthew, no stranger to the magical world, realizes the danger Diana has put herself in, even if she, through stubbornness and ignorance, refuses to acknowledge it. He makes it his mission to protect her – and in the process, falls in love. Diana, too, reluctantly finds herself thinking more and more of the elusive but tender yoga-practicing biology professor. But creatures have been forbidden to love or marry each other for centuries, for fear of destroying the purity of their lineages.

Now that Diana has touched the book, creatures across the world are drawn to her, threatening her safety and the delicate anonymity she has managed to maintain her whole life, despite being the daughter of two of the most famous witches in the world. She and Matthew flee to Sept-Tours, the chateau in France that belongs to the de Clermont clan, where we meet the collected and ferocious Ysabeau, Matthew’s vampire mother. Slowly, Diana’s magical powers begin to emerge, whether she wills it or not.

As the series progresses, Diana and Matthew’s characters deepen and entwine. Matthew is ruled by his possessive vampire instincts, which we are told resemble those of a wolf, in addition to “blood rage”, a rare genetic condition that causes amnesia and wrathful, violent anger. Diana is fierce and intelligent but hesitant, ruled by the fear she’s carried ever since her parents were murdered. But as they grow closer, Matthew learns to relinquish some of his controlling, dominant instincts to allow Diana space to breathe and learn her powers, while Diana finds her courage and strength.

The two are surrounded by a panoply of, literally and figuratively, magical characters. From Matthew’s vampire family, Ysabeau, Philippe, Gallowglass, Marcus, and more, to Diana’s aunt Emily and her partner Sarah, to humans and creatures varied and multifarious from the 16th century to the 21st. The names outside the main circle become hard to keep track of by the third book, but the characters are clearly defined and well-crafted.

And then there is the magic itself.

Although it is never fully explained how vampirism and witchcraft can stem from genetic factors comprehensible to modern scientists, Harkness does the best job of rooting magic in science I’ve seen. She draws on her background as a historian of medieval Europe to craft one of the most compelling magical systems I’ve encountered – and all of it seemingly connected to tangible historical sources. Building on many different kinds of science and magic, from alchemy, potions, and “weaving” spells to a vampire’s superhuman but biological strength and sensory powers, Harkness builds an epic but tangible world that feels both real and mythical to anyone familiar with European lore.

Have you gone to buy the book yet?

Book of Life

Although I can’t go too much into the second and third books without giving away significant plot points, I can offer a few minor critiques. The first critique is that the second book isn’t nearly as good as the first and the third. While I enjoyed learning about Diana’s magic, the characters, with a few exceptions, weren’t nearly as exciting, and the action moved slowly and without as much direction as the first. The good news is that the third book absolutely slays in the climactic-finale category. It’s been a long time since I read a series finale that wrapped up in such a satisfying manner without leaving me feeling like the author had busted out some serious writerly techniques to pull it all together. In fact, I’m not sure it’s ever happened quite so smoothly.

The second criticism is that the romance between Diana and Matthew can at times be too melodramatic and insistent on the star-crossed-lover narrative. Matthew is enormously overprotective, bless his heart, and Diana, though stubborn and insistent on her own development and freedom, tolerates this behavior to a much higher threshold than I can relate to. The third book manages to wrap the star-crossed-lover theme into a really lovely narrative of an interracial romance that represents the freedom to love without boundaries, which salvaged my opinion of their romance.

If you enjoy epic or urban fantasy of any kind, I highly recommend that you read this book IMMEDIATELY. Rarely do I proffer such enthusiastic recommendations, but in this case, I promise, this is one series you’re going to want to keep up with.

Especially because there’s a TV thing happening. And we all know how cool it is to be the one who read the books first, right?

Have you read A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES? What did you think? Are there any other similar books you think I’d enjoy? Leave me a comment below to let me know. I’d love to hear from you!