The All Souls Trilogy
By Miriam R. Kramer
Witches, vampires, and daemons, oh my! The bitter winds and darkening days of November will inspire you to enjoy Deborah Harkness’s absorbing historical fiction trilogy: A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, and The Book of Life. Drawn from her experience as a professor, she explores an enticing world of academia and ancient lore, dipping into history as her vivid characters take life, some in more ways than one. Start reading on November 2, All Souls Day, for fun.
A Discovery of Witches, published in 2011, features Diana Bishop, descendent of a Salem witch and tenured professor of protochemistry at Yale. While living in Oxford for a year, she keeps denying her powers, keeping away from fellow witches and other non-human creatures, and attempting to control her environment and research her area of expertise as if she were a human.
In particular she pours herself into studying the natural philosophy of alchemy. Alchemists focused on transmuting base metals such as lead into precious metals such as gold while looking to create the philosopher’s stone, an elixir of mortality known to many Millennials from the Harry Potter books. They also searched for panaceas to disease.
If the paragraph above sounds tedious, don’t let it scare you off. Harkness is a vivid storyteller who weaves academia into an enjoyable, fast-moving tale of escapism. It involves romance, time travel, and the innate powers that people find when they explore what and whom they love, who they are, and become the best versions of themselves.
At Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Diana asks to review a medieval text, labeled Ashmole 782 for the man who owned it. When she receives the book, she realizes that it is set apart by its imagery unusual to alchemy. A magical palimpsest, it is a text that contains another book within it. Three pages have been excised, damaging it while causing the words to race illegibly across its pages. She does not yet realize that because of a spell, only she can now access this book.
After returning the book, Diana realizes that vampires, daemons, and fellow witches have infiltrated the Bodleian, sniffing out a text that each breed believes contains mysteries about their origins and powers. Living within a human world, they maintain cover in whatever ways they can, but in this case they are causing a disturbance in the world of humans.
While conducting further research she turns around to meet Matthew Clairmont, a tall, cool, vampire who is likewise a professor, a scientist with an attachment to All Souls College. He too is searching for the book and sees her as the best way to find it. As he looms in the background, dark and enigmatic, they become slowly but strongly attracted to each other.
According to an ancient covenant, witches, vampires, and daemons are not supposed to mingle, so they face entrenched prejudices towards unions between one another and each group in general. Diana becomes the hunted representative whose unsuccessful attempts to retrieve the book again from the library show that it is under a special spell. She faces dangers that cause the protective Matthew to take her to his ancient castle of Sept-Tours in the Auvergne region of France, where he had been born
Shadow of Night proclaims their adventures in the Early Modern period in England. Diana adjusts to living in a world both heady and earthy, one in which she can practice the alchemy she has only studied and increase her formidable latent powers. By creating friendships and attachments with those in Elizabethan England, she also comes to experience the kind of family she did not know after her witch parents were murdered when she young.
The Book of Life continues Matthew and Diana’s search for the truth of the origins of all creatures, accompanied by a crew of witches, vampires, and demons who decide to defy the ancient covenant that keeps them divided.
Author Deborah Harkness also focuses on Matthew’s study of genetics in the current era, which were sparked by his ideas from medieval and early modern times, as they try to escape the antipathy towards their love and create a new order, one in which as a human in 500 AD. There she bumps up against the disdain of his ancient vampire family as their relationship grows stronger.
Diana, a timewalker, begins to experience uncontrollable spurts of power. So she and Matthew decide on the radical step of escaping creatures on her trail by removing themselves to 1590s, where she can learn from powerful witches and search for the intact manuscript before it belonged to Elias Ashmole. Matthew knows all the cultural figures worth knowing, such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth the First, Christopher Marlowe, and witches, vampires, and demons work together to unite their powers to benefit themselves and the world.
Deborah Harkness has created a series in which she explores parallels to irrational prejudices of any kind, the necessity of academic and scientific pursuits, and self-realization combined with a powerful love rooted in family, both by blood and adoption. Her characters grow and change, even the ones who have lived hundreds of years.
If I have an issue with the All Souls Trilogy, it’s that her tone changes gradually and a bit erratically over the last two books. Some of the many creatures keep us from suspending our disbelief in their existence with their contemporary quips and humor, along with the minor plot holes that come with the phenomenon of time travel. The Book of Life is bogged makes with unnecessary plot twists, additional characters, and some excessive earnestness that make it more of a slog. It could have used an editor.
This last novel is still worth perusing, however, to see how Diana, Matthew, and their friends and family have changed themselves and used modern and ancient resources to use history to improve the present for the humans and creatures around them.
I have never sought out books featuring vampires, but this trilogy filled my current need for lively, fun reading with just a touch of seriousness. Also, when I worked at Olsson’s Books & Records on S. Union Street almost twenty years ago, I picked up The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, which is an adventure exploring the Dracula legend. Although more serious, this novel might also capture readers with a penchant for similarly themed well-written, romantic tales.
If you adore the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, this series is for you. It too features a strong female character who lives in the present and the past, finding love in a place where she was flung by fate. Both are historical fiction and romances that involve more action than bodice-ripping, and each is vividly written to be a fine escape from the everyday world. Outlander has also become a bingeable, highly successful television series. A Discovery of Witches is an AMC+ series that I hope to watch soon.
So enjoy these literary adventures across eras and countries, along with the symbolic, spiritual growth of all these souls.