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Review: All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (5)

The All Souls trilogy is a series of adult fantasy novels: A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, and The Book of Life, that center around the life of Yale professor and researcher, Diana Bishop.

On a trip to Oxford as a visiting lecturer in order to research and present her findings on alchemy texts, Diana finds that she's no longer able to deny the truth of who she is and the past that's shaped her future all along.

Diana Bishop is a witch, albeit not a very strong one and not by choice. Unwilling to put any weight into that part of her upbringing, Diana desires a straight-laced and normal life, free of the (dis)advantages of witchcraft. However, when Diana discovers a bewitched text in the heart of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, she's not prepared for world that's about to envelop her like never before.

As creatures immediately begin to appear in every aspect of Diana's life, desperate themselves to read the magical manuscript and discover its secrets, she must make a choice: Whether to leave the book where its been perfectly hidden for hundreds of years or to open her heart, mind, and eyes to the magic all around her and to the creatures that surround her at every turn.

Most of all, Diana must decide what she feels for Matthew Clairmont, a tousled-black-haired geneticist, All Souls fellow, and vampire who she feels pulled to in ways she can't explain. And he: as bound to Diana and the book as she is to witches, vampires, and daemons and the future they - Matthew and Diana - represent for all creatures.

A Discovery of Witches is as intelligent as it is romantic. Throughout the course of all three novels, I found myself remarking on just how smart the series is. Harkness - a scholar of alchemy and history - brings everything she has to the pages of these novels, churning out science and history in clever and thought-provoking ways.

Over and over again I was amazed at how complex the roots of the series are. This is not only a huge step up from YA vampires to Adult, but even compared to other adult novels, this series is elevated. Matthew and Diana are supposed to be experts in their field, with years (and years and years and years (on Matthew's part)) of study under their belts.

With a book as niche as this, it would be hard to pull off for any author who hadn't spent years of their own lives becoming experts. Genetics and historical science aren't topics that a writer can fake their way through, and Harkness managed to leave me with nothing but praise for the foundation of Diana and Matthew's story.

Outside of the technical information that had to be perfected for the trilogy, the writing itself was pointed and full of direction. Never once did the writing wander off, which is a feat in a series as big and complex as this. Harkness is a beautiful writer, not overly frilly or ornate, and not too dry as science-related writing can sometimes be. Her writing fades in the background in the best way, leaving the reader flipping through pages and devouring plot, unaware of the words on the page. It's a writing style that makes you forget you're reading.

Within this, the characterization is detailed without shelving the characters into tired molds. Each of them is individual without relying on tropes or "trademark" traits. Even though it's a series about witches, vampires, and daemons, they're hopelessly flawed. Full of human qualms that make them realistic characters. Matthew, of course, is the show-stopper. The more nuanced and difficult of all the characters. His arch is wide-reaching and flies in a zig-zag, leaving the readers zeroing in on him just when the other characters' growth (Diana, Sarah, etc.) have almost stolen the show.

In a weird way, I want to live in Matthew. I could spend months in his character alone, stretching, expanding, curling up and discovering the most nuanced parts of him. Personally I feel that his character is Harkness's biggest achievement in All Souls, and it makes my chest all tight to think I won't get the opportunity to live in Matthew's mind again, or Diana's, as she discovers all these pieces of him.

Lastly, plot. I put this last because while I feel the series had a solid foundation and was plot-driven, plot was ultimately the weakest part of the novels by the end of the series. While Diana is on a hunt for answers to everything (or at least it seems that way), she's pulled into things and places that had me zipping through the books just so I wasn't left with all those questions myself.

However, like a lot of good books, the small-scale resolutions seemed to come too easily. There were multiple moments where it felt like the pay-off didn't match the build-up. Harkness is a master at ramping up tension again and again in unique scenarios, but the answers were often too simple for how complicated everything seemed leading up.

While I am so content with the ending of the series, plot-wise, I wanted a lot of those little moments of tension and resolution to be more satisfying as we moved closer and closer to the final resolution of the series. Often times, I thought to myself, hmm, that's all? But I was content to keep reading as the characters found themselves in anxiety-inducing situation after anxiety-inducing situation.

I was definitely along for the ride. Even with a few anti-climactic moments tossed in.

Ultimately, I love this book series. It's smart enough that I can go back to it again and again and I doubt I'll ever be bored. It's romantic enough that even days after finishing it I'm still thinking of Matthew and Diana, playing through their connection in my head, letting the emotions between them roll along the inside of my veins (... no pun intended). The All Souls trilogy is the first series in a very long time that not only made me want to experience life with Diana, but experience life as Diana. As far as strong, intelligent female protagonists go, she's the one I'll be modeling my own behavior after.

I both wish I'd read these books sooner and never read them at all. It's one of those that I want to experience for the first time all over again from the beginning. Pick it up if you haven't already; it's definitely worth the read.


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