Sienna's Reviews > Shadow of Night

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness
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Jul 19, 2012

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bookshelves: alchemy-in-fiction, 2012, kindle

(Three and a half stars is probably more accurate.)

As a historian of alchemy myself — I wrote my master's thesis on Elizabethan gentlewomen chymists, and my PhD research examines the role of gender in the practice and spread of early modern English alchemy — I found much to relish in Shadow of Night. Time travel to 1590! Lots of familiar faces!* Practical alchemy! Mary Sidney being awesome! I loved the experimentation, the efforts to become a part of a time more foreign than the most distant of countries, and thrilled at what this unknown, unknowable past would look, smell, taste, sound like. Harkness captured that impossible excitement perfectly with this realization:

It turned out that the challenge lay not in knowing what to do but in actually doing it. After working for years to become an expert, I was a student again. Only this time my objective wasn't to understand the past but to live in it. (32)

And, much later,

'I like being a student again,' I confessed. 'It was difficult at first, not to have all the answers. Over the years I've forgotten how much fun it is to have nothing but questions.' (256)


And so I discovered that the practice of magic was not unlike the practice of history. The trick to both wasn't finding the correct answers but formulating better questions. (339)

At times I found myself frustrated, incredulous or annoyed, mostly with Diana as a historian, though Matthew's periodic treatment of her as helpless was also infuriating. Here's the thing: each scholar may focus on an incredibly specialized, obscure little piece of the past, but that knowledge has to be informed by context. Studying alchemy also means learning about the world in which it was practiced, the religious upheaval, the political machinations, the social mores and that strangely beautiful world-view that may make little sense to us now, but which we must remember in order to understand and respect the long-dead. Here are some 'questions' that I think Harkness could have formulated a bit better:

Françoise quickly taught me how to do so while explaining how Henry Percy's various titles worked — he was 'Lord Northumberland' even though his last name was Percy and he was an earl. (18)

Diana should know how this works and explain it to readers herself. It's not that complicated, and there's no need for her to be a passive learner about everything in 1590.

While we were still at the Old Lodge, Matthew and Walter had lectured me on the ongoing struggles between French Protestants and Catholics over who would control the Crown — and the country. (102)

Diana should really know this already. Look up 'Huguenot.'

'Dudley?' I frowned. That was a family of notorious troublemakers — nothing at all like the mild-mannered Mary. (254)

Seriously, Diana? Are you kidding me? Mary's uncle, who helped secure her marriage, was the queen's favorite, Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester.

'I am called Lord Burghley now, Mistress Royden. The queen is a generous mistress.'

I swore silently. I'd never taken any interest in the dates when members of the aristocracy were elevated to even higher levels of rank and privilege. When I needed to know, I looked it up in the
Dictionary of National Biography. (356)

This would be fair enough if we were talking about anyone other than Elizabeth's chief adviser; the DNB is pretty awesome. But William Cecil had been Lord Burghley for nearly two decades by the time Diana showed up.

* This can also be interpreted as a downside: why must characters in historical novels fraternize primarily with famous people?

Speaking of which, Shadow of Night is populated by an impressively large cast of real and imaginary people that anyone unfamiliar with late Tudor England might find a bit confusing. However, I loved the way Harkness incorporated historical names and events into the novel. Some of these were obvious, as with Edward Kelley's presence at the court of Rudolf II — or that of the Voynich manuscript — but others were deliciously subtle. John Hester, who is mentioned as an overpriced apothecary (238) but never makes an appearance, actually translated Paracelsus's chymical work (and works by his followers) into English. Limner and miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard (227) employed alchemical symbolism in his work and may have been familiar with chymical techniques on a more practical level. John Dee wrote the preface to the English translation of Euclid's Geometrie (53). Oddly, Harkness left out Walter Ralegh's half-brother Adrian Gilbert, who worked in Mary Sidney's laboratory, though I suppose his absence made Diana's assistance more useful to the countess.

I'm not a huge fan of either historical novels or romances generally, and Matthew's sullen, controlling behavior left me cold, but Diana is a sympathetic heroine with a rich and varied cast of family and friends I couldn't help but cheer on. Though the first third of the book could have benefited from more aggressive editing, the rest skips along at a heart-pounding pace. The mystery behind Ashmole 782 and the relationship between the creatures remains compelling and enigmatic, and I can't wait to read the final book in the trilogy.
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