Beware: Spoilers ahead
If you haven’t read the All Souls trilogy, I highly recommend that you do so before reading this post. First, you might want to check out my spoiler-free book review of the first book in the trilogy, A Discovery of Witches (ADOW). My reviews for the second and third books – Shadow of Night (SON) and The Book of Life (TBOL), respectively – spoil the book(s) before them, but not the book being reviewed itself. Consider checking those out between books.
The All Souls trilogy follows the story of brilliant young historian and reluctant witch Diana Bishop, who stumbles upon a mysterious and much sought-after manuscript, Ashmole 782. Her brief encounter with the text starts her on a journey that begins with meeting handsome vampire biochemist Matthew Clairmont. Together, the pair set off on a mission to find and understand the book and its mysteries, and the world of creatures – witches, vampires, and daemons. Along the way the two fall in love, learn about each other, and learn about themselves.
The All Souls trilogy is a fascinating series; from the main story the books follow, to the absorbing world the story is set in and some of the deeper themes it incorporates. After reading it, I was left with a lot of thoughts and I wanted to give myself a chance to dissect and share them. Hence, this post. I hope you enjoy reading it, and once you’re done, I encourage you to share your own thoughts on the trilogy down in the comments.
A Power Couple
From the moment Diana and Matthew met in the Bodleian Library the tension between them was evident, and I was immediately interested in seeing how things played out between the two.
Though initially it’s mostly about getting the book for Matthew, and Diana is unsure about the vampire and his motives, the two inevitably fall for each other. They progress from tentative friends, to romantic interests, and eventually mates – once they are both able to admit and accept how they feel about each other.
Whilst I found the pair intriguing from the beginning – because I’m a sucker for supernatural creatures and a forbidden love trope – I wasn’t quite sure I liked them. Especially not together. Matthew was controlling and possessive and, however briefly or whatever the motives, stalked Diana. And Diana, in my opinion, was just much too passive for a main character. Those individual characteristics combined made for some, quite frankly, uncomfortable and irritating moments.
However, as the story progressed so too did the relationship between the characters, and Diana and Matthew grew in how they interacted with each other – which I think was primarily a benefit of their growth as individuals. At the beginning of All Souls both Diana and Matthew are hiding or avoiding parts of themselves, to themselves, each other, or both.
As Diana and Matthew both grew as individuals and came to understand and accept themselves better, their relationship was able to mature into something stronger than just mutual attraction and the desire to be together. They developed into something that resembling a true partnership. Come the end of the series there is less hiding and less secrets and Diana and Matthew are open with each other and are able to work together – fight together – whilst also allowing each other the room to be who they are.
The progression of the relationship itself was wonderful to read and, most excitingly for me, delivered on the idea of the witch/vampire power couple I’d been hoping for since the beginning.
The parallels drawn between Diana and Matthew and Ysabeau and Philippe were also a pay-off for me. Ysabeau and Philippe were throughout the story represented as a strong couple, who despite their differences and struggles – as individuals and as a couple – loved each other and worked well together. I just love the idea that Diana and Matthew are at the beginning of their journey together as an equally formidable couple, a journey I wish I also could have read.
Growing as Individuals
As I said above, I really think it’s how Diana and Matthew grew as individuals during the trilogy that allowed them to become the strong couple they were by the end. And, I think they both did an incredible amount of growing.
When we first meet Diana, she is only a part of herself. Whilst she is a brilliant and accomplished historian, working in a field she undeniably finds fascinating, she ignores another intrinsic part of herself – her being a witch.
By accidentally discovering Ashmole 782 and choosing to be with Matthew, she is forced back into the world that she’s spent so long trying to ignore – the world of creatures. Furthermore, the mission to find Ashmole 782 and discover its mysteries causes her to embark on a journey of self-discovery and self-realisation, eventually leading her to self-acceptance and an abandonment of the fear that had for so long prevented her from being herself entirely, and from achieving her full potential.
Diana comes out on the other end of the journey all the better for it. Ending up not just a talented historian, but also a wife and mother, matriarch to what I can only imagine will be an epic branch of a great vampire family, and an increasingly skilled and powerful weaver.
Diana’s acceptance of the de Clermont seat on the Congregation serves to further show that she has truly accepted every part of herself, in a move that sees her not only acknowledging the world of creatures but actively participating it. And maybe in her new position she can help ensure a world in which creatures who are different don’t have to endure the years of fear and disillusionment that she did.
With about 1537 years behind him Matthew has a lot more baggage to contend with on his own path towards change. His arc is primarily about his struggle to let go of his past, and the guilt from his past mistakes, these mistakes being why he struggles so much to see his self-worth and why he struggles to open up to, and be with, Diana.
It’s Diana’s continued ability to love him in the face of everything she sees and learns about him that encourages Matthew to open up to her. And, it’s Diana’s belief in him, along with that of others, like Philippe and Marcus, that encourages him to see that he’s capable of more than being the cold-blooded and irredeemable creature he’s come to see himself as.
The journey back to the past further benefits him. It allows him to confront his past and in doing so he’s able to see that he’s more than the vampire he once was. Additionally, it gives him an opportunity to better heal some of the wounds from his father’s death.
I really struggled to like Matthew at the beginning of the trilogy, but by the end he’d grown on me. As he opened up to Diana – and therefore me, the reader – it became much easier to understand him, which made it easier to like him despite some of his flaws. Additionally, he did improve as a vampire, a person, and a partner throughout the books, able to hold himself accountable for his past wrongs whilst still seeing enough worth in himself to take on the responsibility of a scion, and also doing his best to allow Diana the freedom she needs.
I may have disliked him to begin, but that only made reading Matthew’s character development that much better, and by the end I think I not only liked him more, but I also respected him more.
Getting by with help from family and friends
Certain themes in the All Souls trilogy really stood out to me and added further depth to the story. My favourite of these themes was family and support.
The importance of family and support and support systems and allies is highlighted throughout the series.
In ADOW Diana and Matthew’s family and friends help them despite their misgivings about the relationship. Miriam dutifully watches Diana for Matthew; Ysabeau houses Diana for Matthew, even during his brief attempt to run away from his feelings; Emily and Sarah are there for Diana as she starts trying to figure out her powers, and they let the pair stay with them even as the Congregation closes in; and others lend a hand in one way or another, too.
SON and TBOL both further the point, not only showing as friends and family who are already loyal supporting the pair, but also showing as Diana and Matthew individually and separately make allies that help them as well.
I found some of the relationships between Diana and Matthew and their loved ones particularly touching because of the interactions between the characters and how they affected Diana and Matthew. For example Jack, who was one of the only other people besides Diana who Matthew let himself be human around, and Philippe, who not only became Diana’s father with his blood-vow but stayed with her through her memories of him and his unforgotten reminder to “think, and stay alive”. Additionally, characters like Gallowglass and Fernando showed a beautiful amount of loyalty to the pair. Gallowglass’ decision to respect his uncle’s relationship despite his heartache, and Fernando’s pledge to the Bishop-Clairmont family, were both heart-warming in their own way.
The friends and family Diana and Matthew started with, as well as the ones they made along the way were vital in their journey. They not only helped Diana and Matthew to find Ashmole 782 and discover its secrets, but they also helped them to grow as people into the stronger, more complete individuals they became by the end of the story.
I very much doubt Diana and Matthew could have done it without them.
“Power tends to corrupt”
– Sir John Dalberg-Acton
Power is also an apparent theme in the All Souls trilogy. The series explores what people do with it, what it does to people, and what people would do to get it.
Some characters do terrible things to get power. Knox kills Diana’s parents and her aunt, Emily, in his search for power. Additionally he, along with Gerbert and Satü conspire to kidnap and torture Diana for the same reason. Benjamin, the books’ worst villain of all, manipulates Jack and worse still rapes likely numerous weavers in the hopes of achieving whatever blood-crazed, all-powerful army he pictured in his mind, and spends plenty of time enjoying and utilising his power to torture others.
The dark side of power is further evidenced by what organisations and people do with it. The Congregation chooses to take on the role of big brother, controlling the lives of others with weak or outright wrong justifications; Queen Elizabeth unsatisfied with a country to rule, controls the lives of the people in her court; and, Emperor Rudolf uses his power to take whatever he wants – for the most part, at least.
The books show that power, even just the idea of it can make people do terrible things. But the picture it paints isn’t entirely bleak.
For one, whilst the Congregation initially began as a looming force of control, it later becomes evident that not all those involved are bad people with bad intentions. Furthermore, whilst some of those with power in the books used it for nefarious or evil purposes, there were examples of those who used it well. For example Philippe, a great leader who played the game well whilst still being kind and honourable, as well as Baldwin, who may not have been the kindest, but who genuinely seemed to only do what he thought was best for his family, even if it didn’t make him well-liked by them.
Ultimately, the series shows that power can indeed corrupt, but that it is possible to keep one’s head and use it to the betterment of the people over which it is held.
I therefore thought that TBOL ended on an entirely hopeful note, as Diana succeeds Baldwin (and Philippe distantly) by taking the de Clermont seat on the Congregation. She’s someone who is motivated to better lives and create a better future, and who’s familiar enough with the corrupting nature of power to hopefully avoid the mistakes of others who used it less than honourably.
The past always catches up to you
All Souls features several examples of past actions catching up to the present for the characters to deal with, from the major – like the establishment of the covenant – to the comparably minor – like Diana’s decision to ask Father Hubbard to look after Jack.
One past action has consequences for Diana throughout the majority of her life – her parents’ decision to spellbind her. It’s a decision that probably saves her life and gives her the opportunity to become what she did, but Diana nevertheless suffers consequences. She spends the majority of her life disconnected from a part of herself and being spellbound leaves her vulnerable to those who wish her harm, including from the very people her parents were trying to protect her from.
It’s just fortunate for Diana that with her mother’s foresight, her parents had the opportunity to at least leave her with the tools she needed to survive.
Matthew on the other hand, only has himself to blame for the greatest consequence that not only he, but also the other characters, have to deal with in the series – Benjamin. Matthew’s lack of forethought led him to create Benjamin out of some twisted sense of justice, ultimately threatening the life he begins to make for himself in the future.
I think Matthew redeems himself for this massive error by deliberately triggering Benjamin’s trap. In doing so he not only gives Diana and their allies a shot at stopping Benjamin, but he also shows that he is capable of facing and accepting the consequences of his mistakes.
He may not have foresight, but I imagine the memory of this mistake, as well as everything he now has to lose, will be enough of a reminder to think before he acts, in future.
Not four worlds, but one
When All Souls begins, we are introduced to a world with very clear lines of division. The people are separated by species – witch, vampire, daemon, or human – and humans, in their ignorance, experience another degree of separation. Furthermore, CREATURES DO NOT MIX.
At least they’re not meant to mix.
This status quo goes unquestioned by most creatures, happy enough with the explanation that it protects them from humans. Those who have reason to question it, like Diana and Matthew or Sophie and Nathan, are left to suffer judgement and even the potential for forced separation.
Humans suffer as well, left to experience the fear, suspicion, and paranoia that comes with being able to sense something, even if only in the periphery of your mind, without the ability to prove it exists.
In addition to the trouble caused by the rules at play, the journey through All Souls shows the status quo doesn’t sense in other ways. It does this through the creatures of different species who not only peacefully co-exist, but form friendships and families, and through the humans who know or find out about it all and accept it with ease. And the idea that hiding kept the humans “comfortable” was completely smashed by Chris, who said he could always sense that Diana was different.
Fortunately, the twins’ existence and the later obtained DNA evidence help to erase the boundaries that existed between creatures, and even humans, by proving that they never really existed. I liked how Chris put it. “There are no such things as daemons, vampires, and witches,” and “you’re just humans with a difference”. With Chris and his research group (including Matthew) on the case, there’s hope that a mass introduction of humans to “humans with a difference” is not far off the horizon and with any luck they’ll, like Chris and his human researchers, take it in their stride, offering a calmer and more unified future to a world with a troubled and divided past.
As satisfying as the ending of the All Souls trilogy was, I can’t help but wonder about some of the mysteries that were opened up that weren’t solved. For example, how did all the different species, or at least the differences that were labelled as species, come about? What was the full story behind the Bright Born and how they originally came to be, and how and why they were destroyed?
Additionally, I have questions about Diana and Matthew. Like, what will happen to them in the future? What will they both manage to accomplish? How will Matthew cope with Diana growing old and eventually dying? What will the twins be like? What will their lives be like? How will Matthew cope with them growing old and dying if he’s around? Also, where the hell did Corra go? And, not technically about Diana and Matthew and their lives, but will Gallowglass ever be able to move on? And many more.
The questions about Gallowglass, Corra, and Diana and Matthew and their lives and children, I’m more willing to forgive. All Souls was a story about Diana and Matthew’s forbidden love, Diana’s struggles with her powers, and Ashmole 782. Those stories finished, and the rest is for other books. Regardless of how frustrated I might be, Harkness was justified in not satisfying my curiosities. At least in this series of books.
With regards to the mysteries about the whole All Souls world and its history, I don’t know if Harkness deliberately made the choice to not reveal everything to keep a realistic sense of the unknown, or because she thought those were also stories for another time, or just because she didn’t know how to address them, but it’s frustrating to not get that satisfaction whatever the reason. I think it would have been less disappointing if those revelations hadn’t been teased at so much, because it made me so excited to see what was revealed.
The only other slightly critical comment I have is about Diana and Matthew’s relationship at the beginning. In my review of ADOW I admitted – not in the main review, but in a subsequent section comparing book to show – that at points the relationship between the two made me uncomfortable. Though I initially said it was possible that I only noticed the difference because of the show vs book comparison, I now think I would have noticed regardless, though it may have been less jarring as I wouldn’t have had an expectation to compare the book to.
As the books went on the relationship between Diana and Matthew improved, and Matthew expressed less of the traits that made him unlikable to me, and, like I said above, by the end he’d grown on me.
Since finishing the series I’ve read a few Goodreads comments written by people who shared my initial thoughts and based on what they wrote either didn’t finish the series or didn’t see the same improvement I did.
Now, I find myself wondering about it. Did Matthew improve enough? Did his development make his earlier behaviour forgivable? Does what we learn about him make it justifiable? Was the relationship between Diana and Matthew well-handled? Well-depicted?
Whilst I wouldn’t forgive or accept some of Matthew’s behaviour in a real person, I do in Matthew’s case because he’s a vampire, and there are his instincts to consider. Furthermore, he’s not real, and neither is Diana. However, I don’t have the educational background to be sure that the excuse of fantasy would prevent the relationship depicted between Diana and Matthew from having real life consequences for people more susceptible to accepting that kind of behaviour – the control, the possessiveness, and the jealousy.
I’m not sure of how genuinely problematic Diana and Matthew’s relationship is, and maybe a fan wearing rose-coloured glasses isn’t the right person to comment, but I still thought it warranted some discussion.
The All Souls trilogy wasn’t flawless – I can recognise that even as a fan – but I did enjoy it.
Relationships require work, honesty, and compromise; don’t hide from who you are; be kind and forgiving to yourself; family and friends can help you through tough times; think before you act; and, racism is bad. It may not have said anything ground-breaking, and what I think it says may be at least somewhat subjective, but the messages and themes I did infer, I thought were good. Furthermore, I enjoyed the story.
I found the All Souls trilogy easy to read, to fall into, and to in love with. For me, that’s what made it a good read.
Writing this took much longer than expected. I kept writing in circles at first, and then I struggled to make my points concise because I just had so much I wanted to talk about. I ended up with this, and I can only hope that you enjoyed reading it, as much as I enjoyed writing it – frustrating as it might have been, at times – and reminiscing about the series.
If you had the time to make it this far, again, consider sharing your own thoughts on the series down in the comments. Even if you only made it this far by skimming/skipping through, consider commenting. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts.