Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness


Warning: this review contains spoilers.

I know that I have a lot of friends who love this series of books, and several of them have assured me that the third and final book is better than this second book, and that I will probably enjoy it a lot more than I did the second book. For that reason, and that reason alone, I will get around to reading the third book in this series. Eventually. If you're one of those people that loved this book, despite its flaws, you should probably leave now, with those assurances.

For the rest of you: This book made me so incredibly tired. The first book was just fine as popcorn reading goes, full of cashmere sweaters and old libraries and fine wine and castles, and all sorts of other luxuries that make up a sort of amalgam of the old, expensive, classy world that a lot of us would probably choose to live in given unlimited funds. It even had a lesbian witch couple, and a gay daemon couple, and had some interesting things that it was trying to say about discrimination. It was fine.

The first problem with the second book is that almost in its entirety, it takes place several centuries earlier than book one did, because, you know, time travel. The sixteenth century is a much less woman-friendly time, and Diana, our main character, is disrespected, ignored, objectified and over-protected from day one. This is, of course, to be expected. I'm not happy that it's to be expected, but in a time travel story with a female narrator, it happens. My problem is with the fact that Diana accepts this treatment with minimal fuss, and where in modern day she is a woman with agency and an education, in the sixteenth century she is more than happy to set up house wherever circumstances demand that they be while Matthew goes off to meet with the power players of the day and do what they actually came back in time to do. Diana only helps with these machinations when circumstances leave her (and Matthew!) no other choice.

Matthew is immediately transformed into a different person by their passage back in time. He is alternately aloof, secretive, controlling, and over-protective. For large stretches of the book, he puts limits on where Diana can go without someone to escort her; these are usually reasonable limits given how much danger Diana is in, and how little she knows about living in the sixteenth century, but Diana is never given any say in them, and they are always phrased not as a sensible precaution that they both come up with together, or even one that Matthew explains in detail to Diana, and then they both agree on, but as a limit that Matthew places on Diana. That may seem like a small thing, but cumulatively, over the many times that it happens in the book, it grated on me. A lot. It undermines the central relationship between Matthew and Diana that we're supposed to be rooting for, because, at least in my book, a healthy relationship is not one where one of the partners is treated as a child who can't make reasonable decisons for herself.

Wholly separate from that problem is the fact that Matthew doesn't feel like he can trust Diana until late in the book when she starts letting him drink from her on a regular basis, so that he can read her mind. Let me say that again. He doesn't trust her fully until he can read her mind. This is also not how healthy adult relationships work. Adults use their words, and choose to trust their partners based on their words and actions, not invasively obtained proof.

I'm not going to say too much about how much time Diana spends being pregnant in this book, desite the fact that it really didn't work for me. Having children is not something I'm interested in, so I'm probably biased on that point.

The final thing I want to talk about is Em. You know, one of the lesbian witches I was talking about earlier. The ones that I really liked. She's dead. We don't get to see her death. The only thing we know about her death is that she died so that Margaret, Sophie and Nathaneal's daughter, could live. There is something absolutely sickening about a lesbian giving her life to save the child of a heterosexual couple, especially in a book (and a series) that's so obsesssed with geneology, heredity, and pregnancy. Of course half of a couple who wasn't going to have a child gets killed; she was just a supporting character in the reproducing characters' lives anyway, right? She wasn't going to do any interesting reproducing herself, right? Might as well just sacrifice her right off the bat. It really does make me feel more sick the more I think about it.

Anyway, despite all of my problems with this book, there are a lot of people who love this book, and this series. All of these opinions are my own, and if you loved this book, more power to you. Love what you love, meh what you meh. Feel free to ignore or discount this review; if you like historical fantasy, or really loved the first book, there's a high probability that you'll enjoy this book. It's certainly well-written. I won't recommend this book, but I'm certain that there are tons of other people out there that would.

2 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.