The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman
Release Date: April 10, 2012
Genre: Fiction, young adult, horror, religion, suspense, and murder
Summary: Nora takes a research assignment to work on the mysterious Voynich manuscript with her best friend Chris and his roommate Max when she uncovers an ancient secret while translating the letters of Elizabeth Jane Weston. In one night, Nora catapults herself and her friends in the middle of a deadly secret, which changes their lives forever, forcing them to flee to Prague and fight the Lumen Dei, a religious organization seeking the blueprints for a machine that will allow them to talk to God. What follows is a religious mystery that has cost others their sanity, as Nora and her friends race against the clock to find the parts of the machine to prove their innocence and stop the Lumen Dei.
Part historical fiction, part fictional mystery, The Book of Blood and Shadow is rightfully called The Da Vinci Code for teens, but with better writing and less embarrassment for the literary community. We’re not Dan Brown fans here. Centered around the real life Voynich manuscript, which scholars still have yet to fully decipher, proclaimed alchemist Edward Kelly, and his step-daughter poet Elizabeth Jane Weston, this novel is full of suspense and intrigue, as we follow Nora to another world where the lines between religion and reality blur.
First, I’ll start off by saying, I really liked the style of this book. Especially at the beginning, immediately telling us of Chris’ death and hinting at the ruin of Nora’s life and skipping back in time to see what happened previously. It created a sense of doom and even more impending doom to come that was exciting.
I also like the idea of Nora’s life being turned upside down by a crazy, supernatural mystery that came to her suddenly. One minute she’s just a high school kid with a crappy home life and the next her friend is dead and she’s on an insane mission to figure out a mystery that is hundreds of years old. If she doesn’t solve it, all thought of returning to her old life is over….and she might literally be killed for what she knows.
This story pretty much has everything. Murder, mystery, ancient secret societies at war with each other, a machine that talks to god, broken hearts, deadly secrets…. But overall, I was not a huge fan. I certainly liked the book, but didn’t fall in love with it like I often do with books that I just find a connection with. This book and I didn’t really click.
I didn’t find any of the reveals particularly shocking or exciting. The time in Prague clue-hunting felt long. I also found the conversations about whether they think god exists or not extremely uninteresting.
Speaking of which, this book was based in such a realistic setting, that it annoyed me because I couldn’t tell if something paranormal was supposed to be happening or not. Like, is this set in the real world or is this a fantasy world where god is real and there is possibly a phone machine thing you could use to talk to him? I don’t find this a cool thing to wonder about, I just wanted that to be established and I still am unsure having finished the book which way it was supposed to go. I wanted to think it WAS supposed to be paranormal, but it kind of fell flat there.
I didn’t particularly connect with Nora either. She doesn’t kick ass like our beloved Nora Dearly, although I guess she’s not completely useless. Her Latin skills are fun and she’s not afraid of a little breaking and entering. But again, like with the book overall I just didn’t catch the spark.
I feel bad for not loving this book. Again it’s not that I didn’t like it, I’m just so used to falling in love with books that it was weird that I didn’t with this one. I’m probably still going to read any sequels coming out though so I’m not going to give up on it. Maybe I’ll get my yay or nay to god being real in this world in a future story? Go big or go home, I say.
I, in the midst of finals madness, picked up The Book of Blood and Shadow to see what I would have to look forward to when I finished my mountain of school work. Except I couldn’t stop looking – Wasserman grabs you from the very first page. The mysterious circumstances surrounding a boy’s death; the hints at nefarious lovers! Does Chris actually die? Who (and where) is Max? How could I put that book down until these questions were answered? My term papers were easily forgotten as I delved into this engrossing and intelligent take on a historical thriller.
The literary aspect of the text was something present from the first page. Setting up the book with Yeats’ “The Second Coming” was chilling and brilliant. It suggests that the “rough beast” slouching towards Bethlehem is something far too familiar to us – the beast that causes things to fall apart is actually human. This thought anchored me in the narrative, even as the mystical Lumen Dei plot is introduced. I flailed my arms excitedly when the idea of palimpsests was introduced (English majors don’t often get to use their knowledge of French literary theory outside of school). And the idea of translation is gorgeously done and so, so meta – we are translating Nora’s thoughts even as she is translating the words of Elizabeth. Even if it’s the same language, the reading of another’s story is a productive activity. Okay, no more French literary theory.
I also appreciated the time Wasserman took to craft a believable backstory. Too often thrillers just hop into the thrilling parts – car chases, crazy cult leaders, and sexy times as the enemy approaches. But because Nora’s life has been colored with tragedy, it makes her quest to find out the truth authentic. I understood why she felt compelled to go after Max. There was an emotional impetus for the adventure. Also – man, can Robin Wasserman capture things succinctly. “That’s what death did – it turned trash into talismans.”
While it seemed slightly implausible that the teens would crack the case after scholars have had hundreds of years, what really sold me was the manner in which Nora discovered the code. The Elizabeth letters are the other narrative running through the book. The professor assigns the letters to Nora for translating, because she is just a high-schooler. He assumed the letters would be fluff because they were written by a girl. And that is the key – who knows how many scholars and other seekers of the Lumen Dei pushed the letters of the girl aside? Nora took an interest in Elizabeth’s story, and that is truly what made her different and worthy of solving the riddle. She was willing to give voice to the unheard girl.
This same professor asks “do you think the world needs yet another term paper on the causes of protofeminist rage in Macbeth or the structural causes of World War I?” Or on the practice of statistic keeping by reference librarians? I can wholeheartedly say no. But it does need more young adult novels like The Book of Blood and Shadows – books with intelligence, adventure, and heart.
Generally when I finish I book I have a concrete feeling about it- whether good or bad. However, after finishing The Book of Blood and Shadow, I have no distinct feelings for it either way. I didn’t love, it, I didn’t hate it. Although I most certainly preferred the first half to the second half. The historical mystery held no appeal for me, nor did the the religious aspects, which I’ve never found to hold my attention. Thankfully the prose was laden with gems like: “… Adrienne calling someone a chemistry nerd was the pot calling the kettle Fe4CSi” and “It’s busywork, son. It’s a scam to trade your tuition money for a piece of paper… Pretending that because you once read Plato, you can call yourself an educated man.”
This is not my first Robin Wasserman novel, but my fourth, the first three being from the Skinned trilogy, and I enjoyed the first and last book of that immensely. Sure it kept me up at night every time I read it crying over my own mortality, but it was good. Even though for some reason the publisher has now changed the name to the Cold Awakening trilogy and retitled Skinned, Crashed, and Wired to Frozen, Shattered, and Torn. Whatever. What Wasserman does and does well is her gorgeous prose, intriguing story lines, and inclusion of horror elements, all of which I greatly appreciated in all her novels, this one included.
What lost me was the plot, which follows an ancient mystery around a machine that can talk to God, secretly sought out by a nefarious society known as the Lumen Dei. The parallel story of main character Nora to Elizabeth Jane Weston whose letters and clues she translates held little to no fascination for me, and I found myself zoning out while reading Elizabeth’s parts. The opposite can be said of Nora’s sections, and I found the clipped prose and short chapters refreshing, only serving to heighten the suspense and horror up to Chris’ murder.
After finding out that the Voynich manuscript was real, I was slightly more interested in the story, but not much here was nonfiction. The manuscript does exist, and it is a source of fascination to many scholars, containing references to plant species that don’t even exist and is so far undecipherable. This makes Nora’s cracking of it so implausible. Years and years of scholars looking through this manuscript and after only a few months a high school senior is able to crack the code and follow it through the streets of Prague, in heavily guarded areas in places she has never seen before. Highly unlikely.
All my nitpicking about not liking religious elements or the Da Vinci Code second half of the novel, Wasserman is a skilled writer and story teller. I loved the horrific elements of the plot, not to mention all the fun twists and turns. Sadly, the story just wasn’t one that held my interest. Part of me hopes this is a stand alone book, but I highly doubt that.
WHAT WE LIKED MOST:
-The writing style, particularly the suspense, horror, and sense of doom
-Literary allusions infusing the text
-Emotional backstory, rich settings, lush prose
WHAT WE LIKED LEAST:
-God, schmod, who cares about God and his magical telephone?
-Implausibility of a teenage girl solving a centuries old historical mystery
Join us next month when we review our May Bibliomantic Book Club Book: City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare.