Shadow of Night, by Deborah Harkness
The story in this book picks up exactly where the first book, A Discovery of Witches, left off. Diana Bishop, witch and Matthew Clairmont, vampire, have timewalked to London in 1590 where they hope to find Ashmole 782, the book Diana accidentally accessed in the present and which appears to hold the answers to the questions they need to answer in order to stay together and secure the future of witches, vampires and daemons alike.
But, what appeared to be a good and simple idea in theory turns out to be rather complicated in practice. Returned to a previous incarnation of himself, Matthew finds himself surrounded by those who were his friends and associates at the time and at least one of them, Christopher Marlowe, is jealous of Matthew’s connection with Diana and because he’s a daemon and therefore unpredictable, this emotion is potentially dangerous.
But there are more problems. While Diana as a historian, knows a lot about the time she has travelled to, she is an obvious outsider; her speech, her actions and even her appearance don’t really fit into the late 16th century. Ashmole 782 turns out to be as elusive in the past as it is in the present and finding a witch who can teach Diana what she needs to know in order to travel back to where she belongs proves very difficult as well.
And there is Matthew’s life as it was in 1590. Working as a spy for Queen Elizabeth as well as King James while also collecting information for his father, Philippe de Clermont means he is spreading himself very thin while constantly balancing his various interests and identities.
Their search will take Diana and Matthew from London to France, where Matthew faces a difficult and emotional reunion with his father and subsequently to Prague before returning to London again. On their travels the two meet both Queen Elizabeth and Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia as well as various other historical figures. And in the midst of their adventures Diana and Matthew have to get to know each other better, determine how their relationship is going to work and overcome their individual fears and insecurities.
This is a wonderful and captivating book. Even though it had been about a year since I read A Discovery of Witches I found myself back in the story almost immediately after picking up this book. Diana and Matthew may be other-than-human characters but they are completely recognisable when it comes to their emotions, insecurities and actions. Very often a second book in a trilogy feels like filler material. This book didn’t suffer from that particular problem at all. This is a complete and fascinating story in and off itself, although I wouldn’t advise anybody to read this book without having read A Discovery of Witches first.
Historical detail, though at times slightly adjusted, is weaved seamlessly into the fabric of this story. In fact, the integration is so accomplished that at times I found myself wondering if maybe the details as described in this book were true to what had actually happened rather than that which we read in our history books. And while there is a lot of detail, it never takes the pace out of the story or takes the reader’s attention away from the fictional narrative. The fact that the reader gets to meet an almost endless procession of historical figures, most of whom they will have at least a passing knowledge of, adds enormous interest to the story. Because a lot of characters, both fictional and real, form part of this story even the historically very astute reader might find themselves scratching their head at times. Thankfully a glossary of characters is provided at the end of the book, making it easy for the reader to check who everybody actually is and whether or not they were real.
I was impressed with the way in which the author dealt with the paradox that is always present when dealing with time-travel. Not only did she mention the fears both Diana and Matthew have about the actions they undertake in the past changing events in the future, Harkness also had the characters from the first book, who stayed behind in the present, dealing with any anomalies surfacing in the present. In this way the paradox was dealt with but, more importantly, it also gave the reader short glimpses at the characters who had been important in book one, will without a doubt be important again in book three but had no real place in the events taking place in the 16th century.
This is a book filled to overflowing with story, characters, locations and events and it is almost impossible to write a review that truly honours everything that happens and everybody who plays a role in this story. I’ve tried my best and still feel that I’ve not quite succeeded in conveying how very special this book is. All I can say is: read this book! Just make sure that you read A Discovery of Witches first. Anybody reading this book without knowing the prior story would deprive themselves of a lot of reading enjoyment. As for me, I will now be holding my breath until the third and final part of this trilogy will be available. I can’t wait to find out how this story is going to end.