Book Review: Deborah Harkness’ The Book of Life

Posted September 23, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Book Reviews

I received this book for free from the library in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Deborah Harkness’ The Book of Life

The Book of Life


Deborah Harkness

urban fantasy that was published by Viking Adult on July 15, 2014 and has 561 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon.

Other books by this author which I have reviewed include A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night

Third in the All Souls Trilogy urban fantasy series that revolves around Matthew de Claremont and Diana Bishop, their family, and their friends.

In 2014, The Book of Life won the Goodreads Choice Award for Fantasy.

My Take

WOW. Just WOW. It was a dull start, but once I got into it…WOW. It’s incredible to think that the Bishops and de Claremonts had been plotting for centuries to bring Matthew and Diana together. The surprising part is how very little the modern “generation” knows about this.

This is so beautifully romantic. There’s a very real-world feel to it. Yeah, I know, it’s a vampire and a witch so how can their love and their expression of it be real. And it is. Matthew is so amazingly thoughtful of Diana. His belief that she’s the heart. You’ll see. Especially with that picture of the front door…sigh… Other than Baldwin’s brutish behavior and the horror that is Benjamin, it’s actually filled with lots of cozy extras that are sweet and not really necessary.

As much as I love the cozy, I think Harkness could have used the space better by developing the more essential scenes she leaves hanging, such as how easily all the good guys accept what Diana says about timewalking and her own skills. Including the humans. No skepticism. No doubt. Chris is an excellent example. He has no questions about it. Simply accepts it and gets right to the heart very quickly. Okay, he is brilliant, and his background as an African American means he comes with a different perspective, which is incredibly helpful — I love the ideas he comes up with. Then there’s Matthew giving up too easily, too quickly on several points. The blood rage secret revealed with maybe half a second’s pause?

Why doesn’t Diana check with her magic to see if anyone is using magic to do surveillance on her? Why does Knox give her so much time?

The focus is Ashmole 782, The Book of Life, with all its secrets and magicks. Each race believes it refers to the truth of their origins and are scheming to get their hands on it. Meanwhile, Amira brings it home how very personal this book is.

I gotta confess, the whole ghosts can only be seen when the living give up on them doesn’t work for me. Nor did I buy the little drama at the crossroads in the Madison garden when Matthew was so angry with Diana about her bargain with the goddess. I mean, duh, what did he expect she would do? We never do learn why the page changes weight. Then there’s the annoying trope: I-can’t-kill-someone-who’s-a-threat-to-my-family.

With all the brou-ha-ha about keeping vampires, witches, and daemons separate, why is it that the wicked trio has been allowed to torture and destroy for so many centuries? There’s evidence that a formal protest was sent to the Congregation in the sixteenth century??! And how does Father H get away with it in London?

I suspect part of my wow is all the treasures that come forward in time that Diana had used in the 1500s, including the Hilliard miniatures that brought Marcus and Phoebe together. Diana’s reaction to the books and all in the now is funny. It was almost literally just last week that she was using them, and now it’s five centuries later with all the wear of those years. Yep, that paterfamilias idea for the Romans sounds like Philippe. Nice tidbit. Ohh, poor Diana, the whole delivery scene will make you wince in laughter.

I love, love, love how easily Ysabeau plays Gerbert when she has to be his hostage! Oh, yes!! She’ll be one who survives if only because she is so adaptable to the times, lol. And she deserves every positive she achieves after I learned about her early life. Jesus.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives,
not the most intelligent that survives.

It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Ooh, Harkness is wicked! She uses Baldwin’s autocratic, unfeeling behavior as the immediate conflict in this. And it drove me mad with Harkness manipulating this so well! I wish Harkness had played more with needing to keep Diana’s increase in powers a secret. I kept waiting for tension to arise about that, and it never did.

Hmm, once I learned the history of Benjamin’s origins, I have a difficult time liking Matthew for his choice. I know, it’s not fair, as Matthew couldn’t have known what Benjamin would do. Still, it reveals a lot about Marcus’ past and his children. The more I learn about Benjamin’s activities…the more so incredibly disgusting I find him.

“Nana Bets said the wolf who wins is the wolf you feed. The evil wolf feeds on anger, guilt, sorrow, lies, and regret. The good wolf needs a diet of love and honesty, spiced up with big spoonfuls of compassion and faith.”

Ahh, it’s so sad that Matthew and Jack feel that they must “shoulder the burdens of others” to gain love.

“The disgust. The fear. The dislike of anybody who doesn’t conform to your simpleminded expectations of the world and how it should work.”

Harkness does a nice job of tidying up a variety of loose threads.

Marcus makes an excellent point about how he recruits for the Knights of Lazarus, and Matthew is being rather egocentric about it. How can he imagine he would be the only one chafing against the covenant?

I don’t get the back-and-forth on the scion issue. Matthew makes some good arguments against creating an independent branch away from the de Claremonts, so I don’t understand how those particular arguments go away when Diana insists he establish one.

That time that Diana spent in 1590s England was very handy! All that she learned then, she makes good use of in the now.

Whoa, the goddess has told Diana she must give up something very precious if she wants to save Matthew and get the Book of Life. And it’s such a bonus! Once she figures it out!

I think that the chemical wedding and double creature pages are allegorical with Matthew and Diana’s wedding and the twins as well as the family standard that Jack designs and a reference to Rebecca and Stephen’s marriage. Dang, it’s useful to have an art historian in the house, although Diana also learns it can be a pain. I did, however, enjoy the snarky back-and-forth amongst the de Clermonts about the Holbeins!

I love the house in Madison. I wonder if it cleans itself? Then there’s that security system in the Bodleian, lol. Oh, more laughter, the witchy and gay Emily was a descendant of Cotton Mather. He’s rollin’ in his grave. Hope he spins so fast that he gets sick.

Matthew agrees to a bet with Ransome that he will name everyone he killed in New Orleans throughout the years…and it takes almost five hours.

I like how Harkness ended this. It’s ambiguous enough that it could truly be the end, and yet, she’s included all sorts of possibilities for the future.

“Magic is nothing more than desire made real.”

The Story

It’s a reunion of family with Gallowglass not having seen Diana since 1591, Sarah and Marcus with the news for Matthew and Diana about Em, and notice that the Congregation is already hunting for Matthew and Diana for their violations.

For the covenant forbids the joining of vampire with witch, and Diana is pregnant with Matthew’s children.

The Characters

Dr. Diana Bishop teaches history and chemistry and is a weaver pregnant with twins by the beautiful and multi-talented Dr. Matthew de Clermont, a vampire, scientist, warrior, spy, prince, and assassin whom Diana met at Oxford where he has a fellowship at All Souls. Corra, a firedrake, is Diana’s familiar which she acquired in Shadow of Night, 2. Sarah Bishop is Diana’s aunt who took her in when Diana’s parents, Rebecca Bishop and Stephen Proctor, were murdered. Tabitha is Sarah’s cat. Fallon and Hector are Matthew’s dogs at Sept-Tours. Yes, they also use Clairmont. I suspect it’s the Anglicized version. The twins are Rebecca Arielle Emily Marthe and Philip Michael Addison Sorley with different birthdays and astrological signs. Signs that match the alchemical clues. The list of godparents is incredibly long — the children have the names to reflect that. Père Antoine baptizes the children. Russell and Oliver are some of the guests at the baptism.

Marcus Whitmore is Matthew’s son, turned into a vampire in 1781, and in love with Phoebe Taylor, whom he met at Sotheby’s (see Shadow of Night) picking up the miniatures of Matthew and Diana. Marcus is also the leader of the Knights of Lazarus. Gallowglass Sorley?? is Marcus’ cousin and himself in love with Diana. Ransome Fayrweather is a contrary eldest son of Marcus’ in New Orleans who runs the Domino Club.

Sept-Tours, France
The formidable and beautiful Ysabeau, a.k.a., Granny, was Philippe’s wife, a lamia, and the carrier of the blood rage. She is Matthew’s mother while the hostile, vicious, tyrannical Baldwin (the head of the de Claremont family), Verin, Freyja, and Stasia are Philippe’s children. Marthe is Ysabeau’s housekeeper. Ernst Neumann is Verin’s human husband. Godfrey is Matthew’s brother. Alain (he’d been Philippe’s squire) and Victoire (a vampire seamstress) de Merle are a married vampire couple who have served the de Claremont family for centuries.

Fernando Gonçalves is a vampire who loves to cook and is considered part of the de Claremont family because he was Hugh‘s mate, which makes him Matthew’s brother-in-law. Gallowglass was Hugh’s son, making him Matthew’s nephew. Hamish Osborne is a daemon and the de Claremont family lawyer. Sweet William was Hamish’s lover.

Les Revenants is the house Matthew and Diana receive as an anniversary gift. And all it takes is a messy library to win Diana over.

Dr. Miriam Shepherd is a singleminded vampire and a scientist at Oxford who is working with Matthew to solve all sorts of problems including the genetic ones. Jason is all that Miriam has left of her mate. Amira Chavan teaches yoga and keeps an eye on the Old Lodge where Matthew and Diana spent time in the 1590s.

Hancock, Louisa, and Louis are among those who know about the blood rage. Miyaho is one of Baldwin’s daughters; I think Hachiōji is her significant other, although it could be the town where Miyaho lives.

In Madison, Wisconsin
Sarah and Emily‘s coven includes Hannah O’Neil; Vivian Harrison is the high priestess (Roger is her husband); Abby is psychic and has two children, John and Grace (Caleb Pratt is her husband, an anthropology professor); and, Cassie and Lydia were Diana’s high school nemeses and nothing has changed. Nathaniel and Sophie Wilson have a baby daughter, Margaret. Agatha Wilson is a daemon, Nathaniel’s mother, and a member of the Congregation.

The lab at Yale University
Dr. Chris Roberts is a molecular biologist, a MacArthur genius, and Diana’s best friend. Dr. Joy Connelly, a.k.a., Beaker, is Chris’ second-in-command. Tina is his administrative assistant. Jonathan Garcia was one of Diana’s students a few years ago. Richard “Shotgun” Bellingham is a vampire who’d taught at Berkeley. Scully; Mulder; Hazmat; Sherlock; and, Game Boy (Janette), Xbox, and Daisy, who are daemons, are some of the lab assistants.

Lucy Meriweather is “one of the Beinecke librarians” and a friend of Diana’s. Good thing as the rules have changed. Father Athanasius Kircher had possibly had possession of the Book of Life. Eva Jäger is the new vampire economist.

London, then and now
Jack Blackfriars is the young lad Diana mothered in 1591 London and is an excellent artist. I have to wonder if he was Jack the Ripper? Lobero is a Komondor, a dog bred to protect those they loved. Father Andrew Hubbard, the 1500s vampire king of London, is also here in the twenty-first century; seems he was Jack’s maker — and Matthew’s grandson because Benjamin was his sire. Leonard Shoreditch, a vampire, was one of Jack’s playmates in 1500s London. Now he’s driving for Madame, a.k.a., Diana. Doctors Jane Sharp and Edward Garrett are the best ob-gyns in London.

The London coven is impressed to meet the famous Diana Roydon and includes Linda Crosby (she resembles a 1591 earthwitch, Marjorie Cooper); Sybil Bonewits is a firewitch, Tamsin Soothtell is a waterwitch, and Cassandra Kyteler who is a windwitch. The 1500s witches also included the leader, Goody Alsop, the weaver in 1590s London who taught Diana how to use her power; midwife Susanna Norman; Catherine Streeter; Elizabeth Jackson; and, Majorie. Goody Alsop was taught by Mother Ursula Shipton, “a famous cunning woman and powerful seer”, and Tamsin’s ancestress.

Stanley Cripplegate is one of Father H’s boys. Dickie is one of his mates.

Edward Kelly is a daemon alchemist in sixteenth-century Prague who removed three of the pages from the Book of Life. Jean-Luc is a computer expert Ysabeau suggested to Gerbert. Lord Sutton is the director of Sotheby’s. T.J. Weston, a daemon, owns one of the pages.

Isola della Stella is a small island in the Venetian lagoon where the Congregation meets and the library is located. Santoro is the de Claremont man at their Venetian palace. The human Rima Jaén is the Congregation’s librarian.

The dead
Philippe de Clermont is Matthew’s father in name, a memory, a ghost, and a vampire whose actions had far-reaching effects. Atta is a nickname Verin uses to refer to him. Emily Mather was Sarah’s lover, and Diana lived with them after her parents where murdered.

Gerbert of Aurillac is a vampire, a de Claremont enemy, and their nearest vampire neighbor. The witch and Congregation member, Peter Knox, is allied with Gerbert and Dominic. Satu Järvinen is a witch, a weaver, who is not a friend of Diana’s. She had kidnapped Diana in Shadow of Night with the intention of murdering her. Juliette Durand was Gerbert’s creature when she was married to Matthew back in the day.

Benjamin Fox, a.k.a., Fuchs, is worse than a nightmare, and he embraces his blood rage. He’s also Matthew’s son and a parody of his father’s bent for science.

A weaver is a very powerful witch who represents hope, rebirth, and change, a maker of spells who terrified other witches so much that they hunted them down. The higher magics are considered too dark, too addictive, for witches to handle safely. “Gramarye is how a weaver puts magic into words.”

Blood rage is an “inherited sickness that can take over a vampire’s mind and body with no room for reason or control”. The Knights of Lazarus, a chivalric order founded during the Crusades to protect vampire interests, are always led by a de Clermont. The Congregation is a council of nine vampires, witches, and daemons whose purpose is to rule the supernaturals, and the covenant is meant to prevent them from mixing with each other. Other members of the Congregation include Janet Gowdie, a Scottish witch who is also a weaver and a granddaughter of Benedict; Sidonie von Borcke is another witch; Osamu Watanabe and Tatiana Alkaev are daemons; and, Domenico, a vampire and Gerbert ally, is based in Venice.

The goddess is one to whom Diana owes much.

The Cover and Title

The cover is shades of green and a collage of images from the story: the tree of life, circles, charts, and buildings. The author’s name and the title is white. And I love that Harkness includes the first two titles in the series in order. Now if only she’d included the name of the series…

The title is the entire point of the series, The Book of Life.