The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Vox Dei (Review of The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman)

The Book of Blood and Shadow
Robin Wasserman
Atom 2012

After an all consuming family tragedy, Nora Kane feels like her life is starting to get back on track.  Enjoying her final year of high school, she spends much of her free time doing Latin translation for extra credit.  Doesn’t sound like much fun but it involves her two best friends, her new boyfriend a bundle of curious correspondence and the mysterious Voynich manuscript.  As Nora, Chris, Adriane and Max slowly translate letter after mysterious letter Nora’s bond with the 15th century writer, Elizabeth Weston, grows.  Elizabeth talks of a strange device that seems to be shadowing her every waking moment and slowly but surely it starts to haunt Nora too.  As the letters slowly reveal Elizabeth's dark history Nora finds herself in the midst of modern day horror – one friend is dead, one is insane and her boyfriend has disappeared.  Desperate to find meaning in such madness, Nora heads to Prague and the Lumen Dei, the device at the heart of it all, said to allow the user to hear the voice of God.

Nora is not the easiest character to get to know.  She’s tough and fairly uncompromising, unwilling to let people in and still grieving for a family that has been forever changed by tragedy.  While shocked at the events at the start of The Book of Blood and Shadow, she seems almost unsurprised that her life has taken another tragic turn.  She’s clearly incredibly smart and also incredibly loyal but her interactions with other characters often seem tenuous, as if she’s holding part of herself back.  As the story progresses and she finds it increasingly hard to trust anyone around her, this aspect of her personality comes to the fore yet she is never unlikable. Rather she is understandable.  Her close friendship with Adriane is particularly raw and it is to Wasserman’s credit that she allows Nora to be honest with herself about this relationship rather than clinging to sentiment.

Adriane herself is interesting in that she seems to be entirely shallow, despite evidence to the contrary.  She’s not easy to warm to, seeming selfish and dismissive of worries that Nora might have. Yet she clearly feels deeply and as her carefree fa├žade slips she become pitiable, if not exactly likeable.  Max, as Nora’s boyfriend, seems to have been sketched intentionally lightly.  He at different times comes across as sweet, sinister, lost and sly.  He’s terribly cleverly written and readers will never know exactly where they stand with him.  The same could be said for Eli, who appears out of the blue, offering help yet clearly lying to all around him.  The combination of Adriane, Max and Eli is skilful.  They all clearly care for Nora, yet all seem to have personal agendas.  It’s a clever mix when combined with Nora’s naturally distrustful nature, leaving readers unsure what is real threat and what is fear-driven paranoia.

The storyline running through The Book of Blood and Shadow is fairly ambitious.  The novel is structured nicely with the letters of Elizabeth Weston liberally sprinkled throughout the book, acting almost as an historic treasure map.  The story really comes alive when the action moves from America to Prague and the climax of the novel is thrillingly dramatic.  The writing as a whole is excellent, with Wasserman bringing the streets of Prague alive in the tiny details Nora notices as she walks through the city.  The book contains a lot of information, secret societies abounding and historic monuments around every corner, yet the plot never becomes convoluted (although sometimes only avoids being so by a hair’s breadth). The letters of Elizabeth Weston evoke a time of Alchemists and Emperors and hold their own charm and intrigue so that while they sometimes seem to go on forever, it’s easy to forgive. 

In writing The Book of Blood and Shadow, Wasserman has brought an entirely new style to YA.  While loathe to compare anything to the ghastly Da Vinci Code, The Book of Blood and Shadow treads similar paths, using real life figures and events to create modern day intrigue and horror.  However, Wasserman never seems to dumb things down for her audience and her skilled writing is some of the best that I’ve read in recent YA fiction. The Book of Blood and Shadow is what Dan Brown could come up with only in his wildest dreams (the ones in which he can actually write fiction and develop character) and I hope that it is the first of many from Robin Wasserman as it is truly a pleasure to read.

The Book of Blood and Shadow is available now.  Thank you to the publisher for providing me with a copy of this title to review.


Cecelia said…
I haven't read Dan Brown, so I can't say that I'm excited to read something that's been compared to his work (even favorably), but this sounds to me like it might have some of the flavor of Maureen Johnson's The Name of the Star, which I LOVED. I'll be looking out for this one. Nice review.
I really enjoyed The Name of the Star but this actually has a bit more depth to it and the writing is quite different. Definitely worth a read.
I've not heard of this book before, but having read your review it sounds pretty good! I'll keep an eye out for it, thanks :)
grace crawford said…
Oh this cover is so pretty, and I'm really sorry to hear that the book isn't good as it seems on the first look. But I do agree with you, every book needs at least a bit of dialoge. Long paragraph after long paragraph can be very tiering after a while.

grace (Alaska Hunts)
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