The Book of Life
1. I received this as a review copy from the publisher.
2. I have not read the previous two books in the trilogy. As well as impacting on my understanding of relationships, it’s possible this review will therefore have spoilers for the first two books.
Vampires are not, in general, my thing. Yes I have read an enjoyed a number of books that include vampires, but I do not go out of my way to read them. And I don’t especially like vampires for their own sake; I have enjoyed books they’re in when the story itself is great. (Cyborgs, though? I like cyborgs. Sometimes I don’t even care about the plot.) So The Book of Life is not inherently my thing – so if you love vampires, this review probably isn’t going to be useful to you.
The main characters are a witch/historian, Diana, and her vampire/scientist husband, Matthew. They’ve just got back to the 21st century from Elizabethan England and things are messy, not least because there’s not meant to be such mix-marriages and it’s compounded by Diana being pregnant. Also there’s a threat a brewing both to their family and to the supernatural species in general – which also includes daemons but they hardly feature at all in the book – AND they have to continue their search for the titular Book of Life for reasons that are never clearly explained. This involves Science, and History, and the occasional It’s Not Really a Significant Crime, right? Also getting humans involved in their work, travelling across Europe, family arguments, snark, more snark, the odd bit of sex and being a bit creepy.
Pretty standard stuff really.
I was dubious when I received this from the publisher, having not read the others. But I decided to give it a go and I was impressed by how well Harkness managed to basically catch me up. For those completing the trilogy this may well have been annoying info-dump, of course. There were random characters who appeared that had no impact on me but were clearly significant, and call-backs to previous events that I just shrugged past, but I certainly never felt like I was being left behind. So that’s a positive. As well, this is the epitome of page-turning-ness. I read the whole thing on a public holiday (580 pages). I didn’t give it the world’s greatest amount of attention (it’s not like reading Ann Leckie), but I also didn’t skip pages searching for dialogue (um, a few books I won’t mention). Thus, highly readable.
At times I almost forgot that this was meant to be a supernatural kinda book, and read it as a family drama – and it works exceptionally well as such. Every now and then there were odd, jarring notes (yes, I’ve been mourning for five centuries…), but really most of it works on ‘you can’t marry him’/’I just did’ – ‘what do you MEAN you’ve got a [insert unknown family member here]’ – ‘I hate you but I’ll work with you anyway’ interactions. Which can be quite fun when they’re written with enough snark. (Harkness could have added a little more snark, and I wouldn’t have minded.) In this way, it reminds me a bit of the Gail Carriger books – the Parasol Protectorate, while having awesome stuff about tech etc, boils down to relationships and how to negotiate them ((maybe everything does ultimately…).
Harkness touches on some interesting issues, too. I quite liked that Diana and Matthew at least in theory had jobs – they didn’t do much for their employers in this novel, too busy being Indiana Joneseque, but they DID use their professional skills. And Diana is absolutely expected to use hers, because why not? That was nice. Also that Diana keeps working right up til she hatches. And the discussion around why witches and vampires and daemons aren’t allowed to congregate, while a little heavy handed at times, was yet another example of exploring racial separation/ ‘purity’ issues. Aided by the appearance of Diana’s best friend Chris, ‘a black man from Alabama’.
Problems? I don’t like Matthew’s possessiveness. There’s at least one jab aimed at Twilight (‘no, I don’t sparkle’), and maybe others – I haven’t read it so I’m not sure. But I do know from reading some discussions that the possessiveness is present there, as it is here, and I don’t like it. Explain it by saying he’s got a great sense of smell if you like; I don’t care. Plus I am SO BORED by love triangles. Also, on the narrative, there are some holes and a few bits that are just left hanging. Which was annoying. And finally, not something that’s unique to this story but something I’m getting a little weary of: all of the main characters are exceptional. They’re world renowned in their fields. No one is just average. Which, sure, I guess it helps the narrative, but ‘oh I’ve read your work!’ got a bit eye-rolly.
Overall I was pleasantly surprised, because I really didn’t think – when I picked it up – that I’d end up finishing it, let alone in a day. If vampires and witches and love and mystery are your thing, don’t start here – I imagine you want to go back and start with A Discovery of Witches. But anyway, you can get The Book of Life from Fishpond (and Discovery of Witches too).