In the first book of Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy, Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont meet at the library, but their meeting isn’t all that cute. Diana is a Yale history professor who also happens to be a witch, and she accidentally calls up a manuscript that creatures (as supernatural beings are called in her world) have been seeking for centuries. Matthew is one of those creatures, an Oxford geneticist who also happens to be a 1,500-year-old vampire.
Of course she falls for him — he is a vampire, after all — but star-crossed is too mild a term for their love. There’s a covenant among creatures that forbids relationships like theirs, and the manuscript Diana briefly recalled is “The Book of Life,” which each sort of creature believes carries vital information about the past and future.
An almost-over-the-top villain is revealed, after a brief cameo in the last volume (at one point he tells Matthew, “We’re both driven by the same things after all: a lust for power, an unquenchable thirst for blood, a desire for revenge”). But not every element of The Book of Life is dark; Harkness displays a sly sense of humor and a solid knowledge of pop culture.
The Bishop family’s magical home, which expands to provide extra bedrooms when guests arrive and hides objects until they’re needed, also drives everyone crazy by incessantly playing Fleetwood Mac, a favorite of Diana’s mother when she was a teen. And when Matthew is introduced as a vampire to a class of American college students, he has to tell them that “I do not, nor have I ever, sparkled.” We even get a Joss Whedon joke.
Though the books are certainly a love story, they are — like so many fantasy novels — essentially the story of a quest. Diana and Matthew are not only trying to retrieve the manuscript and discover its secrets, but also searching for the nature and extent of Diana’s powers.
At the start of the first volume, she is still trying to reject her heritage as a witch, in part because it seems to have rejected her. Coming from a long line of powerful witches, she can’t perform the simplest spell. But her retrieval of the manuscript was no accident, and Diana’s powers are revealed throughout the trilogy. In The Book of Life, we see her truly coming of age.
This trilogy is a superlative example in a subgenre you could call realistic fantasy — think Harry Potter but for grown-ups or Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Witches, vampires and daemons exist, along with time travel. But this world also is recognizably ours, not a wholly made-up setting like George R.R. Martin’s Westeros.
When done well, as it is here, this sort of fiction provides characters who are recognizably human in their desires and actions even if most of them are creatures with supernatural powers. Through them Harkness succeeds at the hardest part of writing fantasy: She makes this world so real that you believe it exists — or at the very least that you wish that it did.
Nancy Klingener is a writer and radio producer in Key West.