So, more than seven years after I read ‘A Discovery Of Witches’ I finally read ‘The Book Of Life’, the last book in the All Souls trilogy and I enjoyed myself. The almost six hundred pages of the book slid by in a curl up on the sofa with a coffee binge read that was relaxing and exciting at the same time. The story was well told. I admired how Deborah Harkness managed to start the novel in a way that caught me up with the previous books without any tedious repetition or clumsy info-dumping and set the tone for a series of highly charged encounters with layer upon layer of secrets behind them. For me, the ending was satisfying, resolving the main conflicts and mysteries without being too neat and tidy.
This was the book where Diana finally comes into her own. She’s in control of her power, she has children to protect and she’s determined to use the Book Of Life to bring down the Covenant that puts her family at risk. It did surprise me that, when Diana finally came into her power, she used it as if she had been born into the de Clermont family. She slipped on the wealth and entitlement of the de Clermont like a tailored jacket and became someone truly formidable. This is no longer the woman we met in ‘A Discovery Of Witches’. This is someone who, having finally understood that her options and abilities had been constrained by the power of the Congregation her whole life, took hold of her power and focused it on their destruction. It seemed to me that the various vampires and witches who had conspired to stop her along the way had had very good reason to do so and saw her more
There were lots of scenes in the book that caught me by surprise.
I loved that Deborah Harkness gave us a detailed account of the birthing of the twins, drenching it in physicality and making Diana’s pain and exertion into something emotionally powerful.
The other scenes that surprised me I loved rather less. These were the scenes where Benjamin abducted and imprisoned witches and live-streamed their gangrape and eventual death and where he killed children as a way of torturing Matthew. Then there were the scenes that showed the terrible things that were done to Matthew. The images are strong and bloody and vicious and I’d rather not have had them in my head. I know that these scenes are no stronger than I might have read in a book by Anne Rice or Clive Barker but I hadn’t expected them here. They took the book and Diana into a darker, more violent place that seemed much more threatening than anything that they encountered in their travels in the Sixteenth Century.
It took me almost to the end of the book to understand that this whole trilogy is primarily a love story. I never quite understood why Diana felt so attracted to the monstrous Matthew, a vampire with the blood of hundreds of his own kind on his hands, or how she could accept his sire, Ysabeau de Clermont, who spent decades hunting and killing witches. I know it was supposed to be a grande amore but it didn’t feel like that to me. This time around, I was very aware of the de Clermont’s immense wealth and unquestioned privilege and how seductive it is. An ancient, remote castle in France, made so much less remote when you arrive by helicopter. A Queen Anne Townhouse, fully furnished and with hot and cold running servants in Central London, given as a wedding gift. Easy, private travel between countries and continents and never having to think about the cost of anything. It seemed to me that Diana fell in love with what the de Clermont offered her as much as she did with Matthew and, by the end of this book, she had made herself a pillar of the de Clermont power. It seemed to me that I was also being seduced into thinking of the de Clermont as the good guys: as if their good taste in art, their education, their scientific endeavours and their loyalty to each other made their sense of entitlement and the violence that they wrought to keep themselves secure, entirely acceptable. We’ve travelled a long way from a New England haunted house and a belief that all Creatures are equal and should be free. Diana Bishop’s liberalism turned out to be of the deeply conservative kind that grants liberty to others as long as her own privilege is preserved.
Having said all that, this was an enjoyable book with memorable characters, strong emotions, and a clever plot delivered with a skill that made it easy to fall into the de Claremont’s world and believe in it.
I recommend the audiobook, expertly narrated by Jennifer Ikeda. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.