Diana Bishop, a witch and Yale historian, and Matthew Clairmont, a vampire and Oxford biochemist, have been searching for Ashmole 782 (a.k.a. the Book of Life) through the first two books of Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy. Harkness has immersed and spellbound readers with her alternative universe, where creatures live an uneasy existence alongside humans, and love across the interspecies lines separating witch, vampire and daemon is as fraught with danger as romance between the Capulets and the Montagues.
Located in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the magical Ashmole 782 may hold the key to why some supernatural creatures are losing their power or suffering from blood rage, an affliction Matthew harbors in secret that can turn him and his progeny into deadly killers. In the trilogy’s opening book, “A Discovery of Witches,” the pair’s search for the text pitted them against each other, igniting an icy hot passion in the process. Timewalking to 16th century England in “Shadow of Night” put them in the presence of Ashmole 782, but they were unable to bring it back to the present.
They did consecrate their marriage, however, and surprisingly received the blessing of Matthew’s father, Philippe de Clermont. Diana also learned essential lessons from London’s legendary witches about her true nature as a weaver — a rare type of witch able to conjure the most complex spells. Diana’s nascent weaving skills, Matthew’s scientific acumen and their budding family (they’re expecting twins) are put to the test in the series’ engrossing conclusion, “The Book of Life,” as they return to the present to reunite three missing pages of Ashmole 782 with the remaining text and unlock the secrets of creature origins.
Much has changed in Diana and Matthew’s absence, starting with a shocking act of violence perpetrated by Peter Knox, a powerful witch and member of the Congregation. Knox has been spying on Diana and Matthew from the beginning to uncover the secrets of Ashmole 782 and to keep the couple apart. That’s because the Congregation, a conclave of witches, vampires and daemons, has a rigidly enforced rule forbidding interspecies love.
“It was not easy for the three otherworldly species — daemons, vampires, and witches — to live among humans,” Harkness writes. “All had been targets of human fear and violence at some point in history, and creatures had long ago agreed to a covenant to minimize the risk of their worlds coming to human attention. It limited fraternization between species as well as any participation in religion or politics.” With Diana and Matthew’s mixed blood children’s lives hanging in the balance, their goal is to abolish the restrictive covenant.
But before they can exact revenge on Knox or press a petition to revoke the Congregation’s covenant, the couple must face down objections to their union by members of Matthew’s family, now led by Matthew’s brother Baldwin.
But Diana and Matthew have allies among creatures and humans, both living and dead, including the couple’s departed parents and aunt; Matthew’s son Marcus de Clermont, who leads the Knights of Lazarus, a chivalric order that has protected vampire interests since the Crusades; and “warmblood” (human) Chris Roberts, Diana’s best friend and Yale colleague who also happens to be a molecular biologist.
Even more concerning than the family’s objections is the horrifying scheme of Matthew’s vampire son Benjamin Fuchs, who has been impregnating and torturing witches for centuries to create a master race of creatures, a goal not dissimilar to that of the Nazis Philippe fought in World War II.
“He has plans for you, Diana,” Benjamin’s henchman Knox tells the weaver. “You will carry Benjamin’s children. They will become like the witches of old…There will be no more hiding in the shadows for us then. We will rule over the other warmbloods as we should.” [
Told in 12 parts anchored by astrological quotations from a commonplace book Diana kept while an Elizabethan housewife in “Shadow of Night,” “The Book of Life” brims with sensuality, intrigue, violence and much-welcome humor (“Whichever creature had introduced Joss Whedon to our world,” Diana thinks of the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “has a lot to answer for.”)
While the rapid introduction of characters in the novel’s opening chapters and the sections detailing Matthew and Chris’ research in mitochondrial DNA can be overwhelming, the patient reader will be rewarded. For Harkness’ ambitious melding of scientific and historical detail is inventive and brings surprising depth to such real-life societal scourges as racial purity and miscegenation.
Sure, characters occasionally fail to acknowledge each other despite interactions in previous novels, and the date of an infamous attempt to steal the British crown jewels is off by a few hundred years. Devoted fans will scarcely notice, absorbed by Diana’s and Matthew’s battles to win freedom for their unconventional family and Harkness’ skillful mingling of fictional and historical figures like the Knights of Lazarus, Salem witch trial defendant Bridget Bishop or Countess Erzsébet, an infamous 16th century serial killer.
“The Book of Life,” like its predecessors, is ultimately grounded in the abiding love of two creatures the world tries to keep apart, as blacks were segregated from whites or Jews from Christians in world history: “Impossible as it was, they fit,” Matthew thinks, “vampire and witch, man and woman, husband and wife.”
Woods has written four mysteries in the Charlotte Justice series and edited several anthologies.
The Book of Life
Viking: 599 pp., $28.95