For most mere mortals, a position as a full-time historian and tenured professor at the University of Southern California would be sufficiently demanding. But not for Deborah Harkness, who has also managed to squeeze “best-selling novelist” onto her list of already impressive credentials.
In an apt parallel to the alchemists she studies in her scholastic life, Harkness appears to have created literary gold from an unlikely mixture of ingredients. The All Souls Trilogy is an addictive blend of history, science, romance and fantasy that chronicles the complicated relationship between a witch named Diana Bishop and a vampire named Matthew de Clairmont. The two embark on a quest for Ashmole 782, an enchanted manuscript believed to contain the secrets of their species’ origins.
The first book in the series, A Discovery of Witches, was published in more than 30 languages; its sequel, Shadow of Night, was even more popular and debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list.
“I don’t know if you can even imagine what it’s like if you haven’t done it—to make stuff up and for people to take it into their hearts.”
For someone whose prior experience with the publishing world was limited to academic works, the success of the series has been astounding. “I don’t know if you can even imagine what it’s like if you haven’t done it—to make stuff up and for people to take it into their hearts,” Harkness tells BookPage from her home in Los Angeles. “When I write scholarship, people take it into their heads. With this [series], I had a woman in her 80s say to me, ‘I had better not die before I find out what happened to my friends!’ That was amazing for me.”
Happily, fans need wait no longer to discover the thrilling fate of their friends. With The Book of Life, Matthew and Diana return to the present day after the time-travel adventures of Shadow of Night for the last leg of their fraught journey to uncover the secrets of Ashmole 782.
For readers who have spent the past few years living in the All Souls universe, this end of the series is highly anticipated, but also heralds the end of an era. Harkness herself has mixed emotions about closing the book on Matthew and Diana after six years in their company.
“It’s a bit strange, actually. I really have been living with [these characters and books] for a while, and it is kind of strange to wake up in the morning and to not immediately start thinking about [them],” she reflects. “But at the same time, I’m really pleased that we managed to deliver three books in a fairly reasonable timeframe.”
Sticking to her three-book goal wasn’t simple, however. “As it turns out, a trilogy is not an easy thing to write!” Harkness says. “When you set out to write a series, you are able to keep pursuing new plotlines and new characters and just let it organically resolve. But when you set out to write a trilogy, you have to be fairly disciplined. There were moments when I got frustrated because I wanted to introduce a new character or develop a side plot, but couldn’t. I had to be really mindful about tying things up.”
Not that she hasn’t had the space to do so. The Book of Life is the shortest installment of the trilogy, but at 576 pages, it’s still no lightweight. At a time when attention spans are dwindling and even the most dedicated readers have countless demands upon them, it’s a bold move to offer up such a hearty book. Yet Harkness insists that the length of her novels is actually part of their allure.
“You can curl up inside the world. They are so lush, so rich, and they don’t spare details,” she explains.
“There’s nothing like knowing all day that after dinner you get to go back to bed with your big book.”
It’s safe to say that fans of the series agree, and the sparks that fly between Harkness’ prickly protagonists have proven to be particularly captivating. Despite their otherworldly allegiances, their relationship is “real in all of those emotional ways that aren’t really handled in mainstream fiction,” as Harkness puts it.
“I have always found the traditional ‘will they, won’t they?’ arc really boring,” she confides. “Obviously they’re going to get together. So why not just cut to the chase and then say, ‘OK, now what?’ That’s when it gets complicated.”
That question of “now what?” will surely plague fans after they’ve raced to the end of The Book of Life. When pushed as to whether this is truly the end for this universe, Harkness says, “Whatever else may happen with the world of the Bishops and the de Clairmonts, we’re certainly not going to be returning to Diana and Matthew falling in love and establishing a family. That story is now told and I’m happy that that’s the case.”
Disappointing news for some, certainly, but take heart: Harkness won’t be disappearing from bookstores. Although it’s too early for her to divulge the details, she assures us that she has ideas for at least five different projects. “People can count on seeing new titles come out from me. Maybe not in six months, but certainly soon. Right now I don’t have any plans other than to sleep!”
With a book tour on the horizon, sleep may have to wait. Lucky for Harkness, once The Book of Life hits bookstores, she’ll be in good company—more than a few readers will be pulling all-nighters to find out whether Diana and Matthew live happily ever after.
Canadian writer Stephenie Harrison blogs at 20 Years Hence.