“Shadow of Night” Deborah Harkness

This is the sequel to “A Discovery of Witches” which I read a while ago (but haven’t written up anywhere). It took me a little while to get back into this world & story. The basic premise is that creatures live among us – witches, vampires & daemons. Witches are magic workers, as you’d expect, and it breeds true in families. Vampires drink blood, are immortal and must be made by another vampire, but the rest of the legends (like inability to walk in daylight) aren’t true. Daemons appear to be more complicated (can be born to human families, even), and are very creative & erratic – in this book Christopher Marlowe is a daemon. The creatures are ruled over by the Congregation, with rules about fraternisation between creature types and rules intended to keep them secret from ordinary humans.

The plot is about Diana Bishop (a witch & historian) and Matthew Clairmont (a vampire), a mysterious book and the origins of creatures. The first book was the two of them meeting, falling in love, marrying, finding the book & figuring out there was something big going on. In this book they’ve travelled back into the past so that Diana can learn how to use her powers away from the dangers in the present. They go back to 1590 and slot into Matthew’s life at that time, but obviously it’s not all plain sailing. First Diana has to learn to fit in with Elizabethan life, and then they get caught up in bits of the politics (both human and creature) of the day. There was some handwave about how present-day-Matthew’s arrival in the past meant that past-Matthew vanished for the duration (and presumably will be back once they’ve left), which just serves to leave me wondering if he’d have a hole in his memory afterwards? Or memories from the wrong Matthew? Or of the things he would’ve done if not displaced? Paradox is one of the things that’s a thread running through this book – each section of the story ends with a chapter set back in the present day as little ripples run up through time. Finding miniatures Hilliard painted of the two of them, finding a day book Diana wrote etc. And it’s clear by the end of the book that they’d always gone back to 1590 and lived there for months, but it’s also clear that this isn’t the way it was when the book started … probably.

The thing I’m not keen on in these books is the relationship between the two main characters. It’s all told from Diana’s point of view and I just don’t see what she sees in Matthew. He treats her like a child in many ways, ordering her around, telling her she doesn’t know enough to keep herself safe. And he’s so much older than her, and in 1590 is close to the centre of both creature & human politics, that he’s right too. She’s stumbling through a time period she only knows from books (she is a historian tho, and this is her time period of interest, so she’s better off than the average witch would be). And she’s not a trained witch yet (for complicated reasons). And their marriage is forbidden by the Congregation (as a general thing, not specifically this witch & this vampire). But even when she asserts herself he’s still dismissive – for example, she married him during the last book, she’s insistent she wants to be his wife and has first hand knowledge of the risk but wants it anyway. And still he spends half this book keeping her at arms length, mostly because he doesn’t really think she knows what she’s doing. But equally, he’s the one who actually gets them into most of the trouble they get into in this book. He rushes in without a plan and without giving anyone quite enough information, time after time. An example of this is that he plans for them to go back to 1590, and neglects to tell her who his friends in that time are or what his occupation is. And she’s the one who improvises the way back out of trouble when his lack of plan causes problems. She’s the one who finds herself a teacher after his attempts backfire. So why can’t he respect her for the intelligence & sense he supposedly loves, rather than trying to stop her using them? To be fair, he’s called on that by various of the secondary characters as well, so he’s not being held up by the author as a paragon of virtue.

But don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed both these books. I liked the portrayal of the Elizabethan era, and that Diana has culture shock and Matthew slips back almost (but not quite) into the attitudes of the time. I think Harkness has a deft touch with intertwining the creature politics and the human ones, things that make sense in our world as human things are recast as part of creature politics and make sense that way too. I liked the way that Diana’s inexplicable & strange inability to learn how to use her magic turned out to have a good reason behind it. And one that made travelling to 1590 turn out to be the best possible way to have done things. I also like how something spoilery happens – one of those scenarios where clearly this will work out in one way because Plot and then it doesn’t at all, it’s much more realistic. I think actually that might be the main thing I like about these books – yes, in some ways it’s urban fantasy with witches & vampires, but it’s got that grounding element of realism. And I suppose for all my rant about Matthew above, he’s realistic too.

I think it will be a trilogy, but I don’t know when the next book is out. Presumably next year not this year, at least.