Monday, 4 June 2012

Shadow of Night, by Deborah Harkness

Shadow of NightSince reaching the end of the last sentence on the last page of Deborah Harkness’s debut novel, A Discovery of Witches, I have been itching to get my hands on the sequel - Shadow of Night - to find out what would happen next.

A Discovery of Witches
In A Discovery, we meet Diana, descendant of a powerful family of witches. She, however, has always had trouble with her innate magics so instead of following the family footsteps she chose to become an academic. But it seems that magic is not going to let her forget quite so easily - whilst researching the history of alchemy she discovers a lost text that sets a series of life changing events into motion, and introduces the reader to a world of daemons, vampires, and mystery. Pursued around the world by daemons and vampires, and other witches, Diana is not only forced to face her past, but also deal with quite a bit of trauma in her present.

Reading part one was like peeling the layers of an onion - mystery after mystery, layer after layer revealed themselves the further in I got, and the more intrigued and hooked I became. Harkness introduces so many different ideas and concepts, weaving and binding them together into a compelling and warm story. Its not often a writer manages to combine scientific concepts, history, magic and folklore all in one space.

Shadow of Night
Unwrapping the parcel that my copy of part two arrived in was very exciting. My first impression of Shadow of Night was of heft: this sequel has a pretty serious 768 pages. It begins where A Discovery finished: Diana and her paramour Matthew have travelled back in time to Elizabethan England in an attempt to (a) escape their pursuers, (b) find someone who can help Diana harness her powers, and (c) attempt to uncover the secrets of the book that started everything and that is, of course, the key to everyone’s future. But this, sadly, is where Harkness gets lost.

Harkness, much like Diana, is a history professor, and the result of this is most of the first half of the book basically seems to be an exercise in putting as many famous Elizabethans on the page as possible, from Christopher Marlowe and Walter Raleigh to Queen Elizabeth herself. Consequently, very little happens with the progression of the real story - not until 400+ pages in do they (a) finally meet someone Diana can trust with her magic, and (b) get a sniff at the location of the book they’re hunting. Up until this point it was almost as if they’d forgotten why they’d gone back in time in the first place - they pootle along, finding their feet, alternately making love and arguing with one another. It’s a bit trashy, actually. There are hints of political issues and discussions of witch trials, but none of this is ever explained fully enough to be really effective, which was also a little disappointing. Compared to A Discovery, instead of a dozen lines of thought and intrigue, there is only one, and it’s not particularly intriguing other than in its account of Elizabethan life. A Discovery was full of questions, mystery, the old ‘what’s going to happen next’ in every paragraph, and this is sorely missing from Shadow of Night. What happened to the spider’s web of layers, ideas and action from book one?

As the book progresses, it does pick up, but never quite finds it way like A Discovery of Witches does. Harkness has written in glimpses of what’s happening in the present time, and these work well, showing a set of small ripples that Diana and Matthew have created in time as a result of their travel to the past. There are quite a few ‘timeslip’ novels around, and these always raise the question of cause and effect. Aside from these ‘future’ glimpses Harkness has steadfastly avoided all discussion of such concerns, which is probably wise given the hornet’s nest of problems it can create, though I did feel that she made Diana a bit too blase about the whole thing.

By the end of the book, where are we? Have Diana and Matthew achieved what they set out to do? Yes, although in a rather roundabout way, with just the odd bit of drama here and there. Shadow of Night is worth reading, especially for anyone who loved A Discovery and wants to find out what happens next, as well as for anyone who loves Elizabethan history - just don’t expect the intricacy of book one. And I definitely plan to read part three when it comes out - (a) because I still have a whole load of questions from part one that Shadow of Night hasn’t answered, and (b) because the final ‘future glimpse’ chapter of Shadow indicates a lot of drama and intrigue has yet to be revealed. Fingers crossed that Deborah Harkness has got her yen for Elizabethan history out of her system and part three quickly catches up with the stride and standards introduced in A Discovery.

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