Sunday, April 01, 2012

Book Review: The Book of Blood and Shadow, by Robin Wasserman

When Nora decided to swap school classes for the Latin translation project at the local university, she didn't expect it to take over her life. It was just a way to get out of school for a few hours a week, to add something extra to her college applications, and to spend more time with her best friend Chris. But when she is assigned the letters written by Elizabeth Weston, stepdaughter of the alchemist Edward Kelley, to her brother, she finds herself fascinated by Elizabeth's life, the decisions she has to make, and her attempts to carry out her father's wishes and build the Lumen Dei - a machine that, according to myth, is a direct line to God. Nora doesn't believe a word of it, of course, but it's interesting, and she's falling for one of the other students, sweet, quiet, Max.

Nora and her colleagues are not the only one fascinated by the project. Firstly, their professor suffers a stroke that may not have been natural - an ambiguous warning that they do not heed. Then comes the night that changes everything. Nora arrives at Chris' house to find him dead and his girlfriend Adriane in some kind of waking coma. Max has fled the scene, the prime suspect in the murder. Nora is sure that her gentle boyfriend couldn't have done it, and she is determined to solve the mystery of the Lumen Dei and clear his name.

The Book of Blood and Shadow has been described as a YA version of The Da Vinci Code which made me feel quite apprehensive about picking it up, because I've never read The Da Vinci Code nor do I have any desire to! But it has such a pretty cover and Atom kindly sent me a review copy, so I decided to give it a chance.

I immediately liked Nora's narration. She's quite a serious teenager, but she's still got a definite voice. It's quite surly, and at times she can be a bit self-pitying, but not so often that it's hard to read. I think the style of the narration will definitely appeal more to older readers. I also really liked the supporting characters, although I wanted to get to know them better than the novel allowed me to, especially Eli. One thing that bothered me was that all of the parents were conveniently incompetent or distracted by their own emotional problems, and I know that the lack of parental interruptions made the plot move faster, but it felt unrealistic to me. I was intrigued by Nora's dad and I would have liked to have seen more of him.

I also really liked the translation element to the story, it helped to push the plot forward and kept me interested. Like Nora, I really wanted to uncover the story of Elizabeth Weston and the choices she made, in fact, I was more intrigued by Elizabeth than by her project, the Lumen Dei.

It was pretty easy to keep reading, because although none of the plot developments took me by surprise, I really wanted to know how everything would be explained in the end. I enjoyed The Book of Blood and Shadow a lot, but I have to admit to being dissatisfied by the book's conclusion. The speed at which the climactic scenes flew by made the book seem top-heavy, and not enough was explained - I'm referring to the Lumen Dei in particular.

If the ending of The Book of Blood and Shadow is a door, I would say that it's left slightly ajar. There's no obvious route for a sequel to take, but Nora's conclusions seem shaky and there's a lot that she could be wrong about. I probably would read a sequel, if it contained some good explanations! And more Prague.

For some spoilery thoughts on the Lumen Dei, highlight below. If you don't want to read it and you're a subscriber, you should probably scroll down really fast just in case!

So how does it work? The blood goes in and then how does the light/fire appear? There's no way I can think of that this machine would do anything without divine intervention, but Nora doesn't think about this at all! And that really bothered me. Okay, if she saw the mechanism and could tell that it was capable of doing what it did, that'd be one thing. But she couldn't (to be fair she gave about two glances worth of description) so are we supposed to believe that it was God that made it do its thing? And if so, why does Nora not think about the fact that she has seen proof of God's existence afterwards? Regardless of whether she thinks God is great or not, she can't exactly carry on being an atheist after that.


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