I didn’t quite make the comparison when I read A Discovery of Witches, the first book in the All Souls Trilogy, but after finishing the set it’s obvious: these are books that are pitched toward fans of Outlander (or books like Outlander that fill in the spaces between major plot twists with lots and lots and lots of small expository details.) It’s probably not a coincidence that Deborah Harkness and Diana Gabaldon both have doctorates and both brought a very academic sensibility to their fiction writing. I mentioned before that the tendency to over-explain and “show your work” that’s par for the course in thesis writing is on display in the All Souls Trilogy, and it certainly explains a lot of the choices in Outlander as well. It also doesn’t hurt the comparison that both series feature time traveling, a history fetish, and an independent-minded heroine whose relationship places her in an unfamiliar culture with even more strongly patriarchal traditions than she’s used to.
All that said, the All Souls books are not Outlander series clones. They build their own mythology, are careful of their internal consistency, and they don’t lean heavily on common tropes to fill in major aspects of the world-building that aren’t otherwise explained. As an example, Matthew is a vampire, and he’s overprotective and controlling in a way that a lot of fictional vampires are. But after establishing key aspects of his personality in the first book, the second and third books explore vampire genealogy, family hierarchies, and Matthew’s personal genetic profile. This is all in service of more pressing plot points, but they also form an in-universe logic behind Matthew being what he is that isn’t just a hand-wavy “Oh, you know, vampires!” The series is filled with these very meticulously constructed story elements that do as much to flesh out the setting as they do to advance the plot.
An aside: for no particularly good reason, it’s been very challenging — moreso than ever before — to keep current on my reviews. If I’m being honest with myself, the unfortunate conclusion I’ve come to is that I’m burned out on the in-depth critical exercise of writing lengthy reviews. This isn’t new for many of you who have been doing Cannonballs for a long time, but I’m a bit overwhelmed by how behind I am. All of this goes to say — I read these books in January and February. I remember the overall tone and themes and how I reacted to them; I don’t remember enough about the specific plot within each book to discuss them substantially on their own. Here’s an attempt, though!
Shadow of Night picks up from the first book by dropping Diana and Matthew into Elizabethan England. They’re trying to trace the mysterious Ashmole manuscript that caused Diana a lot of trouble before, and also locate a witch or few that can help Diana understand her abilities. As a historian, Diana finds delight in almost every spare moment, particularly since her husband seemed to be quite well-connected in the 16th century and so she gets to meet a ton of influential people. There are dangers in the past too, of course — finding a witch to mentor Diana is a tricky thing to do, as witches were pretty famously persecuted and executed for anti-Christian heresy well into the 17th century. As such, there is an undercurrent of ever-present danger that’s similar here as in the first book, and it keeps Diana and Matthew and their associates on their toes.
In The Book of Life, they’re back in modern times, and utilizing their present-day technology and network of resources to make logical connections between everything they learned in the past and how it all appears to be driving the antagonistic behavior of the 21st century witches and vampires. There’s a Big Bad here who is a truly evil vampire and poses a threat to Diana specifically because of his familial proximity to Matthew and because she has something he wants — the ability to become pregnant by a vampire, which was previously thought to be vanishingly rare if not impossible. So it seems like the list of enemies keeps growing, while all they want to do is just some wholesome scientific and historical research.
As a reader of a lot of genre fiction, including Romance, I wince every time I see the complaint that romantic plots are too-frequently shoehorned in where they’re not needed and make a book worse. However, back when I reviewed A Discovery of Witches, I noted that the romance did nothing for me and that it was the weakest part of the story. Joke’s on me, because the romance between Diana and Matthew went on to drive the entire plot: none of their troubles, and the investigating of different historical leads to solve those troubles, would have even been necessary if they weren’t in romantic relationship. But for something so important, the still romance reads like Harkness’ biggest weak spot in writing. This series has, in some places, been called “adult Twilight,” and not having read Twilight myself, the only comparison I can make definitively is that it does seem true that this romance is not any more mature than the average YA treatment. For all that Harkness clearly put a lot of time and thought into the world-building and mythology, and gave academic research a very loving and important treatment in the story, it still seemed like she couldn’t really elevate Diana and Matthew’s relationship to an authentic place. It was rushed from the beginning and didn’t seem to actually grow in interpersonal chemistry beyond increasingly ardent declarations of love and devotion. A few vampire yoga classes together, and then suddenly, they can’t stand to be without one another and they’re eternal mates. The inauthenticity made it really hard to understand why someone like Diana, a sensible academic who wanted nothing to do with witchcraft and the supernatural, was suddenly and determinedly devoted to a relationship that thrust her into the spotlight of the supernatural world and put a target on her and her family’s backs. If you can just get over it and accept all that, you’ll be fine, but as someone who actually likes to have romantic plots in things, I wish this one had been done better.
In conclusion: it took me literal months to write and finish this review, so there isn’t really a conclusion because I need to review eleventy thousand other books I have read since January, good job me!