In this urban fantasy Deborah Harkness opens our eyes to the possibility of a world where humans are just one of four species or races alongside witches, vampires and daemons. Vampires drink blood, have immense strength and long life; witches have element based abilities; deamons have awe inspiring creativity; and humans’ special gift is self-denial that such creatures exist. As the minority groups and after centuries of persecution witches, vampires and daemons keep their existence secret from humans and also do not generally interact with each other. Inter-race relationships are actively discouraged and romantic relationships forbidden.
The story centres around Diana Bishop, a witch who has turned her back on magic and focussed on history and academia and in particular alchemy. Dr Bishop lives her life determined not to use magic if at all possible and though she cannot fail to feel the magical content of a book she calls from the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, she stubbornly sends it back without further investigation.
The unusual book, with the identifier Ashmole 782, turns out to be a very unique book indeed. Thought to be lost and sought by many powerful creatures the book may contain information fundamental to all creatures. Diana’s accidental discovery brings Matthew Claremont, ancient vampire and scientist (among other things) into her life and triggers a journey of growth, discovery and danger which will change Diana and Matthew, and quite possibly the lives of all creatures, forever.
Diana and Matthew are both strong and independent people with relatable vulnerabilities and the relationship that grows between them over the course of the book feels very real and believable. It is not rushed and it is not without its difficulties but it is beautifully romantic.
This is a long book, but I would not describe it as epic, as Deborah Harkness does not skimp on details regarding the settings, history or the drinking of wine and tea. For some this may be too much, but not for me in this context, I found the detail just made this book more atmospheric and enjoyable.
The book is set over forty days between 18 September and 31 October and it has become a growing tradition amongst its fans to read it in real time. I have joined in the fun this year and have therefore just finished the last chapter.
The enforced slow-down in the pace of my reading was an interesting experience and while I often wanted to read on it gave a new dimension and anticipation to this oft-read book to read it in real time. I only missed reading on one day which typically included some of my favourite dialogue:
“Matthew,” I breathed, “I don’t think that’s bundling.”
“It is in France,” he said complacently, a wicked gleam in his eye.
Reading is usually a fairly solitary pursuit for me but I enjoyed knowing that numerous others were also reading this book at the same time as me, reading exactly the same chapters each day and connecting with them about it via social media.
As well as the book being conveniently plotted using the calendar, in my opinion the historical and location detail in this book also lent itself well to real time reading because I enjoyed looking at the photos of settings in Oxford and delving deeper into the history of alchemy, Thomas Bodley and Elias Ashmole for example on the ‘off days’ when there weren’t chapters to read. The real time reading companion and the additional information provided by the author herself regarding buildings, art works and even jewellery that inspired her writing also added more depth and made this a lovely experience over all.
I highly recommend this book, indeed the whole All Souls Trilogy, to anyone with a romantic heart and a passion for history and encourage you to try the real time reading experience next year if you enjoy the book too.