Special, Spoiler-free review of Deborah Harkness’ “Book of Life”


Part of Female Magic Wielder Month on A Bibliophile’s Reverie

Please be advised that it is spoiler-free, in terms of having no explicit plot revelations. But, people these days are even more over-scrupulous (and even a little neurotic) about avoiding spoilers. If you want to avoid them at all costs, don’t read any reviews before reading the book. It is that simple!


In the precarious realm of final installments to prodigious,large-scope fantasy series, series can either fizzle into pedantic, unsatisfying obscurity or end in a way that is both emotionally and technically satisfying. From my vantage, the type of story that represents the worst ending in the last ten years for any series has got to be Stephenie Meyer’s Breaking Dawn, which really got nonsensical and extremely interminable by the story’s end, as the novel was both too predictable, too silly, and very dull by the end. There were even certain things, from my ethical vantage, that were even really offensive and deeply disturbing, as per the implications of certain weird, unseen plot development towards the mid-point of that novel.

I feel like endings, inherently, are some of the hardest types of books for any novelist to pull off, in a way that satisfactorily appeases all readers. On the other end of the spectrum, the noteworthy example of an excellently written conclusion novel lies Cassandra Clare’s incredible Clockwork Princess, the third and last installment of her best series Infernal Devices. All these aforementioned opinions are merely opinions, and as such, this spectrum that comprises the bad and good endings of any known, or pre-existing fantasy/speculative fiction trilogy can change, according to your subjective perspective of what elements in a narrative constitutes either a bad or good ending.

In the case of Deborah Harkness’ Book of Life, I am very pleased to say happens to fall somewhere a few inches away from Clockwork Princess on my own good/bad ending spectrum. Emotionally, this novel is very deeply-affecting to readers, who have become greatly invested in the lives of these characters. All the nuances of the characters are further carefully refined, and even the smallest strand of seemingly unimportant facets of these characters are continuously developed throughout the course of this very fast-moving, very engrossing 559 paged book. It also shows vast improvement, in areas of plot development, over the first book, which sometimes wallowed in slow, sometimes boring scenes of mundanity.  Of course, these scenes proved to be very purposeful, and even integral to the story’s structure, as the story perfectly conveyed the sterility of Diana Bishop’s clean-cut academic lifestyle, which really was not enchanting and even fun for readers to read. Masterfully, the novel slowly becomes much more interesting and magical, throughout the course of the first novel, and the series truly becomes worthy of academic and serious literary attention, when the second book comes into the scene.

The third book balances the mundane elements of the story’s character development, with more exciting, magical elements much more seamlessly than Discovery of Witches, in a way that is very much intentional. In terms of Diana Bishop’s journey and development as a powerful witch; Deborah Harkness calculatedly shapes the texture of the novels themselves to match the development of Diana from a dry academic, aloof of the magical realm around her,into a powerful, even brash witch that is fully confident with both her abilities and trying to achieve what needs to be done. Antithetically, Diana Bishop is very much the type of truly dynamic female main character, which many fantasy fiction fans have been truly yearning for. We do not want female characters that are strong, super-powered enchantresses, by default, or somehow become more seductive or voluptuous when they transform into stronger characters, as though the author is implying women must be sexy in order to be powerful, or that true strength is really superficialized into a glossed-up visage. Or, you must somehow have brute strength, or be completely remorseless in the way you kill others around you, to accomplish the goals of your own story, and overcome adversity.

Adversity in Deborah Harkness’ novel is much more subtle, and the true way that Diana learns to overcome these abilities may not always be construed as only relying on her magic. In many ways, it is her steadfast love for Matthew Clairmont, her family, her compatriots of daemons, witches, and vampires- all characters that she has crossed on her journey- who become her true,binding source of strength in the end. If you see the former sentences as a spoiler, you probably shouldn’t be reading any reviews of this book, as it is impossible for me to evaluate this novel thoroughly, without somehow discretely referring to certain overarching plot developments or elements that prove to be developed in ways that are very satisfying to the reader.

Another element that I love is the richer development of Matthew Claremont, the fairly complex and realistically shaped vampire character of the series, who never becomes mired in certain generic character archetypes, which have been haunting the vampire genre for too long. Thankfully, he continues to have very fleshed out flaws that Deborah Harkness deftly allows to be examined, as with all the flaws of the various characters, and shown to be more than just a smooth, infallibly moralistic vampire character.

Even though Diana,Matthew, and many of the side’s characters  overall character development is very well done, there is a one rather disappointing feature of this novel that prevents it from truly being a truly excellent ending. The one thing that I feel was done in a rather anemic, even rushed fashion was the development of the novel’s main villain. This seems to be a growing problem in the fantasy genre.A lot of writers will haphazardly throw in villians, and skimp on the development of their villain’s motivations, or make them monologue in ways that become really silly and inappropriately funny, rather than realistically frightening . Now, the villain is still developed in better ways than more egregious examples of this trope of monologuing, recycled villains overreaching the fine line between believable villainy and clownish villainy. While the Lord of the Rings series is considered a classic (in many ways, it becomes “infallible,” and beyond the reach of criticism by some more fervid fans), the villain in that series is pretty ridiculous and unbelievable. I never was convinced that the abstract evil of the Lord of the Rings series was ever a very real threat, especially in the movies, where he is just this stupid glass, protuberate eye thingy-ma-jing.

Thankfully, there is no stupid, bombastic battle sequence to contrivedly spell out the destruction of this villian. And, I cannot tell you how sick I am of reading perfectly good novels descend into boring, tiresome action sequences that go on for pages and pages with tons of superfluous description of characters running around, like chickens with their heads cut off, showing off their special physical skills, that they never had till they magically tapped into this intrinsic skill, in a very prophetic fashion, during the course of the battle. So, Deborah Harkness did succeed in writing a polished ending, which does end both intelligently and cogently, in that it is more interested in the intellectual elements of the storyline versus the vacuous physical triumphs of the story’s heroes in some pathetic excuse for a waste of twenty to thirty page battle sequence(so, I am happy that no such battle sequence is practically nonexistent in this novel). The novel’s various elements are smoothly alchemised, by the novel’s brilliant ending, which brings everything together in a way that is not generic, tiresome, or interminable.  Thankfully, Deborah Harkness knows that  the readers, reading the All Soul’s Trilogy, want something a bit more substantive, than silly “let’s vanquish the boring, one-dimensional monstrosity” to win the day. There are higher stakes in this novel, that have much more sinister, far-reaching implications than just your city of boring, nameless civilians being crushed by a monster, or silly CGI-fied (mainly nameless) soliders screaming, and being killed by large, absurd looking fantasy monsters.

So, the villain is a tad bit one-dimensional, in some sense, but he does exemplify some truly believable villainous traits at other times. Again, Deborah Harkness handles his development in not a completely unsatisfying way, at least from my perspective, but the villain, when compared to the more complex characters of the story, doesn’t seem developed in a way that was satisfying to me.  His development feels a bit haphazard at times, and again, there were times his appearances in the novel felt slightly stagnant and forced.

But, the villains of any of Deb Harkness’ novel are not really the focal point of what truly intrigues me, as a reader, about this novel.  It is the ingenious way that this novel masterfully utilizes the literary mechanics of literary alchemy, in one of the most impressive ways since JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books. And, the development of Diana Bishop is truly impeccable, in the way Deborah Harkness is very careful to mold her into a very realistically flawed, dynamic character. Moreover, Deborah Harkness writes a book that does no disservice to the dedicated readers of the All Soul’s Trilogy. Most of the truly important canon characters, and even side characters, are given very  thorough development that shows that Deborah Harkness took the necessary time to carefully tie up their disparate, though interwoven subplots in ways that show respect to all the characters.

Even with my one small note of criticism about the construction of the villain, the overall novel is written very well, and fans will be very pleased with this final installment of a series that deserves more attention from academic circles for the adept, even unconventional way it uses the mechanisms of literary alchemy, or recreates a parallel version of our history within a world, where vampires, daemons, and witches happen to exist. To all the fans, I really hope that you enjoy this wonderful final novel, for it’s definitely a book that you’ll have trouble putting down, once it has been opened! Everything converges in a chaotic, but very symmetrical, meaningful way, which proves that Deborah Harkness truly cares about the fascinating, multifaceted characters that she has been writing about for three consecutive books.  It is a wonderful, refreshing, satisfying ending that shines with alchemical brilliance, and it champions egalitarian values in a strong, moral way that leaves the reader themselves feeling deeply edified.

 Remember that I still have a contest running, where you can enter for a chance to win Diana Bishop’s Commonplace Book or a copy of “Book of Life.” The contest ends July 31st, 2014, and it is only open to people, living in the United States!

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