Deborah Harkness knows a lot about a lot of things. Her depth and breadth of knowledge on things ranging from wine to Elizabethan England to brewing tea is certainly impressive, but the amount of detail crammed into these books sure does make for some slow going.
The All Souls Trilogy is about a world in which witches, vampires, and daemons (in this case, daemons are humans who are more than us regular folk–musical prodigies, artistic savants, financial wizards, scientific geniuses–or sometimes drug addicts or mentally ill) exist and walk among us. Humans don’t know about them.
Trying to write a brief plot summary of this series is impossible. A LOT happens in these books. The basic gist is there’s a witch, Diana Bishop, who meets a vampire, Matthew Clairmont, and they fall in love. This love is strictly verboten (any mixing between “creatures,” as they’re called, is forbidden by their governing body) and sets off a chain of events that frankly, I am dreading the thought of getting into. It’s not that I disliked these books, it’s just that the more I think about it, the more I am realizing they are hopelessly convoluted and circuitous. There’s a dinner scene that takes days and days to read through, as it describes in loving detail the different wines that Matthew and Diana try and exactly what they eat over several courses (Are you wondering what a vampire would eat, since they normally only drink blood? Read A Discovery of Witches and wonder no more). There’s time travel to Elizabethan England, along with a side trip to the Holy Roman Empire. There’s countless tortured discussions between Diana and Matthew about the state of their union. There are so many named characters that by the halfway point of the second book, I couldn’t keep them all straight.
These are not bad books, and there were certain elements I really enjoyed. I would say the one part of the series that is always enjoyable is when Diana flexes her magical powers. Some of the main characters were a lot of fun. The trip back to the 1590s in the second book, Shadow of Night, had a lot of promise but got bogged down completely in the details. It’s clear that Harkness adores history, and I’m sure she knows her stuff. But it sort of felt like she was writing these books for herself. I can tell she loved the details of these books, and lovingly crafted an entire world that is accurate down to the last drop, but it’s just not necessary for the average reader. I don’t care much about the exact list of herbs that Diana mixes to brew tea. I don’t need a primer on how to prepare Christmas dinner for a village in 1593.
Although this series is for adults, there are inevitable comparisons to be made to the Twilight series. The central relationship is between a vampire and a non-vampire, and the vampire is possessive to the point where I found myself rolling my eyes and clicking my tongue, trying to figure out why on earth Diana, a Yale professor and an Oxford fellow, is willing to put up with this guy’s tantrums and ridiculous demands (spoiler: it’s because he’s quite good at sexytime). There are other similarities, although there’s no love triangle in the All Souls books, thankfully, and no werewolves. This series is better than Twilight, by a long shot, but that doesn’t exactly make it worth the tremendous time commitment–at least the Twilight books were relatively quick reads.
There was only one part where I found I couldn’t put it down, and that was the finale of The Book of Life, with a dramatic fight scene and rescue. Other than that, it took me two months to read these, mainly because I found I couldn’t pay attention for more than 15 minutes. They certainly have unique aspects that were enjoyable, but on the whole they could’ve benefited greatly from some merciless editing.