Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness

"You have to read these books so I would have someone to talk to about them!" a friend gushed in a phone call. "They are so good!"
I hadn't read anything in a while and was eager to get back into the habit, and I'd gotten a few recommendations for this series already, so I decided to give it a go and borrowed A Discovery of Witches from the library.
The story had a slow start, but I liked the promise of the world and the characters so I kept reading. By the time I could tell who was who and where the whole thing was going they'd grown on me, so I dove in deeper, finishing the book in a few days. So much about the story was predictable and formulaic, but because of the close attention the author paid to the characters and the world building I found it extremely satisfying. I loved the intimacy of Diana's routines, her thinking process, her growing fascination with Matthew, the gradual unfolding of and hinting at the mysteries, the lurking danger. The familiarity of the tropes made the story comforting while Harkness' spin on them kept it fresh, so I by the time I turned the last page the sequel was there waiting for me to begin right away.
The first few chapters of Shadow of Night started out as well as one can expect a sequel to do, but soon enough I could tell something was missing. The setting was new and exciting, the challenges our heroes faced were not so familiar any more, there were even a handful of new characters who charmed and amused me, and yet I didn't look forward to reading time as much as I did with the first installment. Soon I realized what it was. The heart wasn't there. I don't know if the story grew and there wasn't enough time or room to develop it properly, or the author was so fascinated with the setting that it overshadowed the story, but I kept thinking to myself "Who are these people and what has she done with Diana and Matthew?!" I could catch glimpses of the characters I'd grown fond of here and there, but those glimpses didn't last long enough. Moreover, as capable as Diana was, I had a lot of trouble believing that she could accomplish that much that well in that short of a time with no practical foundation. I could buy that she was good, but not that she was that good. Had the main mystery been less compelling, I probably would have abandoned the series, but it had me thinking about it and the implications, so I pressed on.
The Book Of Life immediately had the feel of an action-packed blockbuster. There was so much plot that character development seemed barely more than bright flashes in the blur of events, and I had to slow down reading to keep everything straight. It was very exciting though. Extremely. All the connections that tied the story together were coming to light, Matthew turned out to be much more flawed than the prequels revealed (especially the first book), and Diana... Diana went from capable in A Discovery of Witches, to formidable in Shadow of Night, to indomitable in The Book Of Life, a force to be reckoned with in every sense of the phrase. Despite the thrill of the transformation I missed the original Diana sometimes. That one reminded me of a beautiful, soft, pastel-colored rose with sharp thorns. This one was also beautiful, but in a dark, hard way, all sharp angles and razor blades for thorns.
One of my criteria of a great book is whether I would read it again, and this trilogy didn't quite make the cut. I would probably revisit The Book Of Life at some point to get rid of the sensation of whiplash, but I wouldn't buy the trilogy to keep. Had the series been five books, I think it would have been stronger. The story would've had room to breathe, there was definitely enough plot in books 2 and 3 to fill the volumes, and with a concept as rich as this Ms. Harkness could've made it into an amazing series in every respect. As it is, I couldn't quite share in my friend's enthusiasm, despite The All Souls' many positive qualities. I did find my kind of series later though, but that is a review for another time.

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