Friday, September 21, 2012

Stupid Shadow of Stupid Night

Shadow of Night (All Souls Trilogy, #2)Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I am going to say something in this review that no one (least of all me) ever expected me to say.  I wish I were more familiar with Twilight.

Yes, you read that right.  I think if I were more intimately familiar with Twilight, I'd be able to do a really interesting comparison of vampire mythology in modern-day novels.   Especially the whole pregnant-by-a-vampire treatment of a heroine (oops, was that a spoiler?).  However, since pigs do not fly, and I know very little about Twilight beyond what I have gleaned from Kristen Stewart's dead eyes in the movie posters, you will have to look elsewhere for that insightful bit of writing.   You're stuck with me, for now.

For those who didn't know, this is the recently released sequel to A Discovery of Witches, which I reviewed here.   I rather liked the first one (or was in a generous mood when I read it), but this one left me colder than (take your pick):
  • a witch's tit
  • a vampire's preternatually cool skin
  • a 16th-century London bedroom (remember, no central heat!)
Don't worry, those will all be funny once you've read the rest of the review book.

I knew Diana and Matthew were going to go back in time, but I didn't expect the déjà vu.  Basically, it was like reading Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, except with a brooding vampire (aside: are there any vampires in popular fiction who aren't either brooding or bloodthirsty?) playing the male lead instead of a red-haired Scot.  Oh dear, magic sends a modern-day woman several centuries back in time, and she has to wear different clothes and she sounds funny and isn't sure if she knows how to get back!  Where have I read that before?

Anyway, Diana conveniently has all kinds of rare witchy powers that make her able to do just about anything, including "timewalking," which means basically she is her own DeLorean.  So when some important book turns out to be all damaged in the present day, she and Matthew head back to 1590 to find the pre-damaged version.  We get to meet Queen Elizabeth in all her decayed-tooth glory, Christopher Marlowe (who turns out to be super-annoying) and William Shakespeare (who is pretty much written as just a Marlowe-wannabe).  There are a lot of discussions about whether or how they're affecting the future by being in 1590.  Discussions that sound eerily like Outlander... or, okay, like any time-travel novel ever.   Except instead of trying to change the outcome of the Battle of Culloden, these characters try to prevent some witch-hunting and -burning.  They fail, because this is paranormal historical fiction, not alternative history fiction, so their attempts were doomed from the start.

Just for fun, let's review a few things that made this book suffer by comparison to Outlander.  Actually, we don't even need "by comparison"; these are just things that make the book bad:

(1) There are confusing, unnecessary supernatural creatures.  Diana's newly discovered familiar is a "firedrake."  It is very carefully explained that a firedrake is not a dragon because it only has two legs.  This is important because some important alchemical illustration turns out to be of a firedrake, not a dragon the way Diana always assumed it was.
And did you notice that the dragon has its tail in its mouth?  And that it's not a dragon at all?   Dragons have four legs.  That's a firedrake.
Fine, that's all well and good.  Firedrakes have two legs, dragons have four. Except:
The last thing we needed was a cavorting firedrake.  My control over the past might have slipped, but I knew better than to let go of a dragon in Elizabethan London.
Wait, what's that?  Oh, now "firedrake" and "dragon" can be used interchangeably?  In other words, a firedrake is just a dragon except when a dragon is too cliché?  

(2) Secondary characters are treated like chaff.   For example, a sweet but secondary character dies off-screen with little-to-no explanation or fanfare.  Maybe the death will be explained more fully and used to motivate some revenge plots in the third book, but it was clumsily and carelessly handled.  That bothered me; he/she/it (trying to avoid a spoiler) deserved better.

(3) The author skipped some pretty basic research.
We'd been married by vampire custom when we mated and again by common law when Matthew had put Ysabeau's ring on my finger in Madison.
Yeah, no.  There are so many problems with that sentence that I hardly know where to begin, but suffice it to say that giving someone a ring does not ever make a common law marriage.  Also, the requirements for a common law marriage vary wildly by jurisdiction.  Some -- including New York, where "Madison" is located -- don't recognize common law marriages at all; others require several years of cohabitation.

(4) Even time travel needs a bit of internal logic.  Matthew was already a vampire in 1590.  To avoid dealing with the icky problem of having two Matthews in the past, the conceit is that the original Matthew magically vanishes when future Matthew returns to the past.  Literally, Original Matthew goes "poof" out in the countryside when Future Matthew timewalks into London with Diana.  Fine.  But Original Matthew is going to reappear when Future Matthew goes back to the future, and here's where I see a major logical flaw. Diana and Future Matthew spend seven months in the past, and are constantly meeting friends, acquaintances, and enemies of Original Matthew.  Diana and Future Matthew even have a wedding ceremony and invite bunches of people!  But when they timewaltz back to their future, Original Matthew -- who is unmarried and doesn't even know Diana -- is going to be left with a hell of a lot of 'splaining to do.  At a minimum he's going to be incredibly confused.  You cannot convince me that no one is going to say, "Hey, Matthew, what happened to your wife?"  I can only assume he will respond, "What wife?" and people will think he's making a Henry VIII joke.  (Don't you think Henry VIII had to ask "which wife?" fairly often?  And there's an Anne Boleyn joke in there somewhere that I would be shocked to find out hasn't be made yet.  Which wife = witch wife, get it?)  Because Henry VIII jokes were timely and topical in 1590.

Also, is it just me, or is Shadow of Night kind of a dumb title?   If I ever call a book Sunlight of Day, go ahead and tell me I suck.


Anonymous said...

Excellent review!

Brian S. Wise said...

" ... Diana conveniently has all kinds of rare witchy powers that make her able to do just about anything ..." which gets right to the heart of something I find annoying about science fiction (a term I'm using here generically, easily expanded to include vampires, werewolves, et cetera).

"Oh, however will we combat this demonic, spike covered poison ivy with a mind of its own?!"

"Why, didn't you know I have a special power no one has known about and I haven't mentioned before now that allows me to kill demonic, spike covered poison ivy?"

It's a way out for lazy writers, and was the first thing I thought about when you wrote the above quoted line. It borders on enraging.

Anonymous said...

This made me audibly laugh. The review was worth your reading the book!