Now, before I get into the thick of my book review of Deborah Harkness’ Time’s Convert, I have to make a confession. Deborah Harkness is one of my favourite authors, and her book series the All Souls Trilogy holds a special place on my bookshelf and on my list of all-time favourite books. Time’s Convert is a circumquel (a before and after narrative that adds to another story) to the All Souls Trilogy, so naturally, I am already inclined to like it before even opening to the first page.
Now that I have acknowledged my pre-established bias, here is what I thought of the latest addition to Deborah Harkness’ magical world.
A new focus
The All Souls Trilogy was set around the love affair between the academic professor Diana Bishop and the intoxicatedly charming Mathew Clairmont. Time’s Convert shifts away from this witch-professor and vampire-scientist pairing towards Mathew’s beloved son Marcus and his human mate Phoebe.
The book fundamentally follows two timelines at once. The present time during which the couple are separated from each other while Phoebe sees through her 90-day crash course in becoming a vampire. And Marcus’ past, from his puritanical upbringing in Massachusetts to the battlefields of the American Revolution as a young man and surgeon, where he meets the mysterious Cavelier de Clermont.
When Mathew offers a fairly incoherent Marcus the chance to avoid death, he willingly takes it, unknowingly becoming part of a tradition-bound vampire family with its own host of patriarchs. During their heartwrenching separation and Phoebe’s own development as a new vampire, Marcus relives his uneasy introduction to his new immortal life and struggle to assimilate his equalitarian ideals and revolutionary spirit with his new family’s unmoving rules.
It’s a novel that contrasts not only the past and present but also the power of tradition and change. Covering two iconic political rebellions, Time’s Convert brings us back into contact with a whole host of Deborah’s characters during a completely different point in history, with a fair share of famous figures from history thrown in for good measure.
The rebellious son
Everyone loves a rebel son. The troublemaker who wishes to do good but fights against his father’s rule. It’s a common character in the literary world. Think of the charismatic Satan who rebelled against the rule of his heavenly father.
There have been various re-imaginings and retellings of this relationship in different stories – the father representing tradition, time-tested rules and authority, the son being somewhat of a loose cannon, favouring newer ideas of how things should be run, revolting against his paternal iron fist. Marcus de Clermont certainly fits the bill.
Whereas in the All Souls Trilogy, we see Marcus as Mathew’s energetic second-in-command, in Time’s Convert we see a different side to their father-son relationship. I don’t know about you, but from the All Souls books, I imagined Mathew to be a somewhat strict but loving father-figure to his beloved son. Marcus in turn, I imagined being a well-established part of the de Clermont family, despite his spontaneity and rebellious spirit.
Time’s Convert paints a completely different picture of their relationship. Marcus is revealed to have had a much harder transition into the de Clermont hierarchy than previously believed (at least by me). Despite clearly being a favourite of his esteemed grand-mére Yasbeau de Clermont, Marcus succeeds in coming to blows and ultimately revolting against his elders, including the imposing head of the family, Philippe. While I love the image of the de Clermont family as a powerful, untouchable clan of sophisticated, scary-ass vampires, the cracks that Time’s Convert reveals in the de Clermont house puts an interesting spin on things.
For one, it shows how difficult commanding and successfully running a family of territorial, almost tribalistic vampires can be, particularly as each character has their own personality, backstory, loyalties and demons thrown into the mix. It presents a different angle to view all of Harkness’ characters, which just makes them even more intriguing and captivating.
A new side to Mathew
One of the more disappointing elements of the book was the presentation of Mathew in the early days as a father to Marcus. Instead of the overbearing yet kind-hearted father figure I imagined him to be, instead Harkness paints him as a somewhat negligent father who leaves his son to his own devices. If anything, Philippe acts more like the authoritative patriarch I imagined Mathew to be, while Mathew all but leaves Marcus to be raised by his various family members.
Now, this disappointment arguably comes from my own self-confessed #bookcrush on Mathew de Clermont as opposed to any criticism I could throw towards Harkness’ character development. After all, it was Deborah Harkness who gave the world the beautiful Mathew de Clermont in the first place. But this snapshot of Mathew’s somewhat distant parenting puts a completely different edge to their relationship. I almost felt as if it didn’t fit in with how their relationship is painted later on in the All Souls Trilogy.
This is particularly juxtaposed with Mathew’s new role as father to Becca and Philip. Though the teething twins come with their own challenges for Mathew, particularly Becca. But even with the twins entering the terrible twos, Mathew is a much more attentive father than he is in the early years of Marcus’ vampire life. As mentioned above, this is contrasted with Philip’s own parenting style as the supreme patriarch and head of the Clairmont clan, which pushes Mathew’s role as a father almost to the edges of the narrative.
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Filling in the gaps
In comparison to The Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night or The Book of Life, Time’s Convert felt less plot drive, more like a collection of memories and snapshots from history and the present.
Maybe this is partly because the narrative follows Marcus’ past which blends into his present, instead of a suspense-based sequence of events that coincides with the development of the protagonist’s romantic relationship. In Time’s Convert, the lovers have already met, fallen in love, and some of them have even got a family. We don’t even get that many new glimpses of Marcus and Phoebe’s own love story, though there are a few here and there to keep our heartbeats thumping.
Overall, Time’s Convert felt more like a recollection piece, not necessarily a filler story but certainly a narrative to fill in the gaps, helping to fluff out the characters and their history some more. After all, the de Clermonts are a mysterious bunch with a long, volatile history full of political upheavals and disasters, bloodshed and family feuds.
Unfolding their past in various instalments only makes them an even more interesting collection of characters. If this was Harkness’ aim, then she certainly succeeded in expanding the personalities and backstories of Marcus, Mathew and the rest of their bloodthirsty brood.
I loved being able to dive further into Marcus’ personal history, from his childhood and years as a young man, to his early transition into his new life as a vampire and de Clermont. But would have liked to see some more snapshots from Phoebe and Marcus’ own love story, just saying.
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Bringing history to life
If you haven’t gathered by now, Harkness has a flair for bringing the past before our eyes. Although Time’s Convert lacks the plot and suspense-building of the All Souls Trilogy, Harkness does not fail in her ability to vividly reimagine scenes from history on the page.
The horror, chaos and collective revolutionary sentiment and the eventual lost hope of the American and French Revolutions are brought before us with her characteristic flair. My only criticism is the lack of page space Harkness dedicates to this rich and iconic part of history. For me, the deep dives back into the revolutionary past felt somewhat shallow.
However, this chapter of history is not Harkness’ expertise. As a scholar of Elizabethan England and Europe, it might be that she didn’t feel that she had the academic knowledge to comfortably conjure up these parts of history. If this is the case, then Time’s Convert merely lacked quantity, not the quality of the descriptions of the past.
Luckily, Harkness’ next adventure into the world of the de Clermonts and All Souls Universe returns us back to her well-known stomping ground of Elizabethan England in The Serpent’s Mirror, planned to be released in 2020. In the meantime, I’d suggest you crack on with reading Time’s Convert. Despite a few small criticisms, this novel is a welcomed new exhibition of Harkness’ mastery of history-fantasy fiction writing. For all the All Souls fans out there, this is a novel which opens your eyes to new sides of the de Clermonts we haven’t seen before as well as treating us to another captivating journey back into history.
Are you a Deborah Harkness fan like me or new to the world of All Souls? Comment below with your thoughts on Time’s Convert or any questions you have about my review. For more book reviews, head over to the Books section!