When A Discovery of Witches was published last year, it didn’t so much arrive on the scene as explode in a myriad of star-spangled reviews.
There could not have been many readers and critics who weren’t bowled over by University of Southern California professor Deborah Harkness’s irresistibly sexy blend of history, mystery and truly spellbinding paranormal romance.
Almost inevitably there were comparisons with Stephenie Meyer’s bewitching Twilight saga but Harkness served up passion with a capital P... this was definitely a series for grown-ups rather than teenagers.
But what really set apart her mind-blowing tale of daemons, witches and vampires was its impressive historical and scientific backdrop which helped to raise the fantasy fiction genre to dizzy new heights.
‘Discovery,’ the first book of her All Souls Trilogy, introduced us to historian Diana Bishop, descended from a line of powerful witches, and the handsome, brooding vampire Matthew Clairmont whose forbidden, love-fuelled relationship set thousands of hearts aflutter.
In Shadow of Night, the much-anticipated second instalment of this epic tale, the action moves back in time to London in 1590 where Professor Harkness’s academic prowess in the science of Elizabethan England begins to work its own alchemical magic.
When Diana discovered a significant manuscript, Ashmole 782, in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, she sparked a struggle in which she became bound to Matthew, son of a vampire overlord and a notable academic who recognises that 782 might reveal why the population of vampires is dwindling.
But their relationship threatens the fragile coexistence of witches, daemons and vampires so, desperately seeking safety, Diana and Matthew travel back in time to Elizabethan London where they soon realise that the past may not provide the haven they hoped for.
Reclaiming his former identity as poet and spy for Queen Elizabeth, the vampire Matthew falls back in with a group of radicals known as the School of Night. Many are unruly daemons and heretics, the creative minds of the age, including Sir Walter Raleigh, playwright Christopher Marlowe and astronomer and mathematician Thomas Harriot.
But Diana is in serious danger. London is full of perilous creatures who can sense her extraordinary, latent talents, and the devious devil Marlowe is becoming obsessively jealous of her.
Together Matthew and Diana scour the city for the elusive Ashmole 782 manuscript, and search for the witch who will teach Diana how to control her remarkable but erratic witching powers. It’s a quest that will take them to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor in Prague, and into a deadly struggle to return to the future...
Shadow of Night is a stunning follow-up to ‘Discovery’ – an intelligent and enchanting romp through a world that is inherently supernatural and alien, and yet recognisably factual in its construction of authentic historical figures operating in a tangibly real Tudor setting.
Harkness’s gift is to convince us that these two worlds can collide and to do it with such power, presence and starry-eyed panache that we suspend belief and allow ourselves to be swept away without pausing to question the whole, fantastical premise of the story.
A big, beautiful adventure with a final chapter that can’t come too soon...
(Headline, paperback, £7.99)