27 March 2012

Legite Librum!

Even the cover is MYSTERIOUS
The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman (Random House, April 10, 2012)
Review by Laura Beutler

It was like a nightmare, but there was no waking up.  When the night began, Nora had two best friends and an embarrassingly storybook one true love.  When it ended, she had nothing but blood on her hands and an echoing scream that stopped only when the tranquilizers pierced her veins and left her in the merciful dark.

But the next morning, it was all still true: Chris was dead.  His girlfriend Adriane, Nora's best friend, was catatonic. And Max, Nora's sweet, smart, soft-spoken Prince Charming, was gone. He was also—according to the police, according to her parents, according to everyone—a murderer.

Desperate to prove his innocence, Nora follows the trail of blood, no matter where it leads. It ultimately brings her to the ancient streets of Prague, where she is drawn into a dark web of secret societies and shadowy conspirators, all driven by a mad desire to possess something that might not even exist. For buried in a centuries-old manuscript is the secret to ultimate knowledge and communion with the divine; it is said that he who controls the Lumen Dei controls the world. Unbeknownst to her, Nora now holds the crucial key to unlocking its secrets. Her night of blood is just one piece in a puzzle that spans continents and centuries. Solving it may be the only way she can save her own life.

I read the description of this book and thought...This is MY KIND OF BOOK. And I was right. From the first sentence to the last, I was caught up in Nora’s story and her search for her friend Chris’ killer. What makes The Book of Blood and Shadow especially interesting is the way in which Nora’s story is told. There are two main plot arcs within The Book of Blood and Shadow. One is narrated by Nora, explaining how she first came to study the Lumen Dei (which is a book on alchemy dating back hundreds of years) with her friend Chris and his roommate, Max. The other is that of a young woman, Elizabeth Weston, who lived in the 16th century and also studied the Lumen Dei. Nora learns about Elizabeth by translating Elizabeth’s letters. Through them, she is able to discover more about the Lumen Dei than any living scholar. By the end of the book, Nora and Elizabeth’s stories have proven to be linked.

Above all, The Book of Blood and Shadow is a mystery. The Lumen Dei, or The Book, as Nora’s professor refers to it, is a mystery. No one knows what secrets the Lumen Dei contains, but for centuries, scholars have worked to make sense of it. Nora and her friends are no different. They begin to study the Book as part of a college class. In the process, Nora discovers what she thinks is a clue in one of Elizabeth’s letters. The next thing she knows, her friend Chris is dead and the police think it was Nora’s boyfriend, Max, who killed him. But no. Nora doesn’t think that’s true. She thinks--she knows--that Chris’ death is her fault. She gave him the Elizabeth’s letter he day he died, and she’s certain that information contained in the letter could finally make sense out of the Lumen Dei. She thinks someone must have wanted to find out the truth hidden in Lumen Dei enough to kill for it, so Nora goes to work tracking down Elizabeth’s clues in an effort to find Chris’ killer. Plot twists abound, and by the end of the novel, figuring out who Nora can trust is as difficult as forming gold out of lead*. A lesser writer than Robin Wasserman would not have been able to pull off a plot this complex, but she does it beautifully.

I tend to love books in which a character’s research is an integral plot device. I can just hear all of you out there saying, “What on earth is this girl talking about?” or “Gee, she’s a whole lot weirder than I thought she was.”  I’ll explain myself a little better. Nora needs to find out who killed her friend Chris. Since Chris’ death is wound up in the history of the Lumen Dei, Nora needs to work out what the Lumen Dei exactly IS in order to save Max from jail, her best friend Adriane from the crazy, and probably her own life. And to do that, she needs to do lots of translating. The effect of all this research-related amazingness is a book told across time, through several voices.

“But Laura,” you say. “That sounds boring! Why should I read a book about translating a book?”

1. Because I said so.

2. Because it is freaking amazing. The characters, with all their different motivations, are captivating, and there are plot twists left and right. That is a recipe for greatness.

3. Because any book that opens with the sentence, “I should probably start with the blood,” cannot possibly be boring. So there.

Nora’s translations take her across Europe and lead to lots of MURDER. This is why Kenzie should pay attention in her Latin class instead of tweeting and reading fanfiction. Hear that, Kenz?

I also love Latin. I like my languages good and dead, which is too bad, because that makes it a whole lot harder to learn them (The closest my high school came to offering Latin was Spanish. Spanish and Latin are not the same. Not even close). The instant Nora described sitting down with her father for Latin lessons, I was hooked. Robin Wasserman made Nora and her father’s love of Latin transcend the page. Nora uses Latin as an escape from her home life and the grief she feels after the loss of first her brother, then her friend Chris.

When I finished reading this book (on my Kindle thanks to NetGalley), I immediately pre-ordered a copy of my very own so I could pet it and cherish it and put it on the Favorites Shelf. So, to say I strongly recommend The Book of Blood and Shadow would be a bit of an understatement. Robin Wasserman really raised the bar with this book. I look forward to see what she comes up with next!

* That’s an alchemy thing.

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