The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

9780670025596_p0_v3_s260x420The final chapter of the Deborah Harkness three book trilogy in The Book of Life has me yearning to restart from the beginning of Book One. Finally, witch Diana has overcome the powers of darkness and united all creatures through magic and a little genetic research. Finally, she had become a woman of formidable power, a professor by day and head of a feisty Board of vampires, daemons, and witches by night – with her handsome brooding vampire lover, Matthew, at her side. The ending was satisfying and inevitable, but the journey is everything. If you have read the first two books, you will appreciate how cleverly Harkness uses history and ancestry to bind the story.

If you are a fan of Gabaldon’s Outlander, and can suspend belief while Harkness carries you away – all the while grounding you in the cycle of family dissension and worldly politics, you will find the same contented flavor of adventure, romance, and intrigue with the All Souls Trilogy. Harkness ends with a not so subtle message appropriate for today’s worldly unrest. If only we had her magic threads to tie us all together.

The Book of Life can stand alone, but if you want the total experience, start from the beginning – or at least read the reviews:

A Discovery of Witches

What is the real secret of the philosopher’s stone? Deborah Harkness in A Discovery of Witches connects its immortality, wealth and knowledge to vampires.

Although the story begins slowly with academic references and a strange book recalled from the Oxford library stacks by Dr. Diana Bishop, it’s not long before witches, daemons, and vampires are locked in a battle for the ancient and powerful information the book promises. With a witch pedigree that tracks back to the Salem witch trials, Diana has stubbornly refused to acknowledge or use her magical powers until a handsome irresistible vampire, Dr. Matthew Clairmont becomes her protector and true love.

By mixing scientific inquiry, evolution and DNA, with popular interest in vampires and other worldly magical creatures, Harkness creates a compelling combination of mystery thriller, romance, and fantasy – with a sprinkling of scholarly historical fiction.  If you look closely, she also added a dash of intolerance for bigotry and racism.  As the action escalates, imaginative details on witchcraft and vampire lore, as well as a few well-used myths, supplement the plot line.  The antics of Diana’s childhood home reminded me of Jessica Day George’s Tuesdays at the Castle, but The Discovery of Witches is not for children.

This is the first of a trilogy, and I missed this book’s debut last year, but thanks to a good friend who reads the Mount Holyoke alumni newsletter, I’m back on track.  The second book – Shadow of Night – is already on the New York Times bestseller list, and I won’t have to wait long to find out what happens to the star-crossed lovers as they battle the forces of evil – time traveling back to sixteenth century England.  I can’t wait.

Daughters of the Witching Hill

“…double, double, toil and trouble…”

Stories about witches today are relegated to Disney movies or science fiction horror, and Arthur Miller famously fictionalized the New England trials of Puritan cleansing in The Crucible.    Easy to forget the historical truth of ignorance and jealousy that led to the persecution of innocent women.

In Daughters of the Witching Hill, Mary Sharratt gives a history lesson based in England’s Elizabethan era that promises to rival any modern tale of witchery. The story is well-documented with historical reference, and reveals the sordid and grim lives of those who lived off the land, at the mercy of unscrupulous lords.

Bess Southerns, known as Demdike – a word that later became synonymous with witch – leads the story, as an illegitimate daughter of a lord, with a gift for healing with herbs.   The incantations that she uses to secure the herbs’ powers are actually prayers in Latin, learned during the reign of Mary and forbidden by the new Queen Elizabeth, who brought back the hatred of the papists.   As Bess grows into old age, her granddaughter Alizon resists learning her craft, yet finds herself in a time when physical disabilities and problems with health are blamed on the power to curse and bless. King James has written a book on “Daemonologie,” a witch-hunter’s manual, and men seeking power and fortune welcome the opportunity to identify covens of witches to secure their own place and fortune with the king.

The story is based on the true history of Pendle Forest in England in the 1600’s; the misfortunes of the characters are real.   Sharratt takes you into the lives of the families, while teaching about the simple life of peasants, and the privileged life of the few. Her language is framed in an understandable cadence, and will sweep you painlessly into that time and place.

The ending is inevitable, but the clear explanations of human frailty, family betrayal, and arrogant power are still lessons to be remembered.  Better than any movie or fictionalized tale,   Sharratt’s creates a novel of strong women with courage, who are only exonerated later in history as their stories prevail.