Book Review – Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

shadow of night - book coverSince I read and posted my review of A Discovery of Witches, I’ve heard that there will actually be more books in the series than just the initial trilogy. Having gotten further attached to the characters in the Shadow of Night, the second book in the trilogy, I’m excited that the next book won’t be the end—though I’m perhaps more excited to see how things played out in the present timeline while Diana and Matthew were in the past as well as how this particular plot ultimately wraps up.

Despite Diana’s familiarity with the history of Elizabethan England, when she and Matthew arrive after timewalking there, she has a lot to learn—about how to behave and live in the sixteenth century, about Matthew’s family and past, and about who she is and how her magic works. The tasks they set out for themselves—finding a witch to educate Diana and locating the Ashmole 782 text—aren’t as simple as they had hoped or planned them to be. Matthew becomes conflicted as he must act in accordance with his sixteenth century self though many of his beliefs have shifted drastically; Diana must come to terms with her magic, training so she can protect herself from those who covet her powers or might wish her harm. In the present, those Matthew and Diana have left behind wait and watch for signs of a changing history and portents of their return.

As far as this second novel’s narrative structure is concerned, there are far fewer breaks from Diana’s first person perspective than there were in the first novel. I wish there had been more. While Diana’s perspective is in no way boring, I miss having that greater sense of what’s going on and of insight into other characters—most notably, Matthew. In the first book there were frequent breaks from Diana and Matthew’s perspective—while not presented in the first person—was illuminating. In this book, I believe there are only seven chapters that aren’t in Diana’s first person narration. While Diana and Matthew are together through a lot of the book, it was disorienting to be so shut off from his perspective when it was so heavily present in the first book.

It takes some time for both Diana and the reader to become acclimated to the sixteenth century setting. In part, this is because of how the characters—particularly those who are real historic figures—are first introduced and presented. Introducing them in a jumble along with a multitude of logistical information for reader and character to process is purposefully—and effectively—disorienting. As with the first book, the timeline of events quickly becomes muddled. Not only do the characters do a great deal of travelling, they travel between parts of the world that used different calendars and therefore the dates referenced are difficult to keep straight (a fact of history that is accurate and annoying).

But while the historic world takes tome sorting out before it becomes recognizable, the world building as far as the logistics of magic—and specifically Diana’s magic—builds effectively on the foundation created in the first book. The exploration of how witches’ magic works was fascinating and there was more of the scientific links Harkness establishes between the vampire, witch, and daemon species (though not as much of that last as I’d hoped for). There was more exploration of Diana’s and Matthew’s personal histories—which I was expecting but not in the directions presented—and quite a lot, thematically, regarding parent/child relationships and the line between being protective and being controlling.

The tensions of this second novel didn’t feel as pressing—and I felt at least one confrontation came across a bit contrived, though I think it had to do with how it was worked into the narrative rather than the events themselves—so I’m intrigued to see how the next book will work on ratcheting that back up. It was in such a promising place at the end of book one but I feel like some of the air has been let out of the tension bubble; it needs to be reinforced for the popping to be truly effective.

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