a review by Nalini Haynes
Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness is the sequel to the best-selling Discovery of Witches. Discovery is fantasy set in contemporary times with vampires, witches, daemons and all sorts of other supernatural folk. Discoveryensnared me in the beginning with Diana Bishop, an academic, researching in the Bodlean Library in Oxford.
By the end of Discovery I had a few reservations due to what I felt was excessive introduction of magic: Diana’s house was sentient and had ghosts. Although Diana was supposed to have grown up ignorant of the supernatural, she apparently had a relationship with this house knowing about its magical abilities and habitually magically disposed of her hair and nail clippings to prevent people finding her DNA. Nonetheless, Discovery captured me and carried me through its romance and wild ride.
In Shadow the protagonists, Diana Bishop (a witch) and her husband Matthew Clairmont (a vampire) travel back in time to Elizabethan England so that Diana can find a mentor to teach her to control her budding powers. Instead of staying focused, Diana and Matthew hare off after a missing text with the intention of securing it and taking it forward in time. Although they’re intelligent people, Diana and Matthew ignored all the problems and potential paradoxes inherent in what they were doing.
I love time travel stories and I’m happy for them to engage with paradoxes or to circumnavigate paradoxes, so I’m very forgiving. The problem with Shadow is the puppet master feel of so many events. Mary, Diana’s new friend, shows up in the nick of time unexpectedly and does exactly the right thing without legitimate foreknowledge or a reasonable explanation afterwards. Phillipe, Matthew’s father, gives Diana a really hard time then suddenly does a backflip without justification for the contrasting behaviour. I felt that Diana and Matthew lingered too long in historical Europe just to place them in a parade of historical events and European courts, winking at the reader all the while.
A year ago I would have read Shadow of Night, recognised some of its flaws and still loved it unashamedly. This year I enjoyed it but that critical faculty switched on during reading made me almost feel guilty for enjoying it, puppet masters and all.
If you enjoy full on magical fantasy populated with a myriad of supernatural folk plus a generous dollop of historical fiction thrown in, and you’re happy not overly analysing the story, then Shadow of Night is a highly recommended read. Just throw yourself in and enjoy the ride.