“I should probably start with the blood.
. . .
“But beginning with that night, with the blood, means that Chris will never be anything more than a corpse, bleeding out all over his mother’s travertine marble, Adriane nothing but a dead-eyed head case, rocking and moaning, her clothes soaked in his blood, her face paper white with that slash of red razored into her cheek. If I started there Max would be nothing but a void.”
And yet, after just a few months translating the letters of Elizabeth Weston, Nora finds herself in the middle of a nightmare tied to a mysteriously indecipherable book called the Voynich Manuscript and the forces who want to unravel its secrets in The Book of Blood and Shadow (2012) by Robin Wasserman.
The Book of Blood and Shadow is a thoroughly-researched blend of thriller and mystery that imagines what secrets the real Voynich Manuscript might hold. This story is dense with details of Prague’s history as well as morsels of truth about the real historical figures who feature in this work of fiction.
Although often long-winded with its extensive detail, this book is always extremely clever. The plotting is surprising and aptly executed even when it veers into the very, very unlikely.
Wasserman also does interesting things with characterization. Readers know early on exactly how bloody this story will be even though the inciting incident from the first page is not fully addressed until about one hundred pages into the story. Throughout the novel there is a push and pull dynamic between what is presented as fact and what is left to the imagination. (Is Max guilty? Is he unhinged or is it just being told that Max is unhinged that makes the difference?)
Sadly, not all books are for every reader either. The Book of Blood and Shadow brought up some particularly specific and personal bad memories that made it very difficult to finish. I also discovered, in reading page after page about it, that I have almost zero interest in Prague or its history. These were obstacles.
The bigger obstable, however, was Nora herself. Despite all of the things Wasserman does extremely well, Nora remains a very one-dimensional character. We see her through a few specific lenses (friend, girlfriend, researcher, daughter) but none of those pieces coalesce into a larger picture. Even as the narrator of the book, Nora’s story often felt more like a frame for the smaller story found in Elizabeth Weston’s letters.
While this book has a good story and raises a lot of interesting questions, it is very thin on closure. The treatment of Adriane is also problematic not just as the only other (not-centuries-dead) female character but also as Nora’s friend. No level of cleverness can distract from the problems surrounding Adriane’s character arc.
Recommended for readers who enjoy a surprising mystery and want to watch all of the puzzle pieces come together. Less recommended for readers with only a minimal interest in Prague. Not at all recommended for readers who might ask themselves what it means when the minority characters in a book are either murdered or complicit by the end of the story.
You can find more information about The Book of Blood and Shadows and the real stuff featured therein on Robin Wasserman’s website: http://www.robinwasserman.com/bloodshadow.html
Possible Pairings: What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, The Diviners by Libba Bray, Breaker by Kat Ellis, Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, Tamar by Mal Peet, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Archived by Victoria Schwab, All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin