Review: The Book of Blood and Shadow

The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman. A Borzoi Book published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from NetGalley.  

The Plot: It started simply enough: a senior year independent study at the local college as a research assistant for a historian. Nora’s best friend, Chris, had done it the year before when he was a senior and he assured her it would be easy and fun, with the extra bonus of spending time with Chris, now a college freshman.

Professor Hoffpauer is obsessed with unlocking the secrets to “the Book,” the Voynich Manuscript, a book hundreds of years old that is written in code. “Historians, cryptographers, mathematicians, the NSA’s best code breakers gave it all they had, but the Voynich manuscript refused to yield.”

Nora is assigned a minor task: translating the Latin letters of Elizabeth Weston, written in the late sixteenth century. Weston was the step-daughter of Edward Kelley, an alchemist rumored to have broken the code.

Who would think a dusty volume and the letters of a long-dead girl would end in blood?

The Good:  If I’d known that my high school Latin class would lead to centuries old conspiracies, secret societies, and Prague, maybe I would have taken more than two years. Then again, it also leads to betrayal and murder, so maybe I’m just as well off not having become a translator of medieval manuscripts.

If I had to give an elevator pitch for this book, it would be Dan Brown meets Indiana Jones. A bunch of bright students use their knowledge of history and language to track down and discover ancient secrets, while trying to hide from secret societies with no qualms about killing to get what they want. (Except, I have to clarify: this is so much better written than Brown’s books.)

I fell for The Book of Blood and Shadow at the first sentence: “I should probably start with the blood.” Before she shares her own name, Nora tells us that “Chris will never be anything more than a corpse, . . . Adriane nothing but a dead-eyed head case,  . . . Max would be nothing but a void.”

Nora is a liar. Well, maybe not a liar, but rather, someone who withholds information. When she started at Chapman Prep as a scholarship student, she told people she was an only child. Chris knew her secret: her older brother had died several years before in a drunk driving accident, killing himself and a girl. Nora becomes best friends with Chris and his girlfriend, Adriane, yet they never visit her in at her house. They are both very close yet at arms length. In many ways, Nora is as full of secrets and hidden messages as the Book and letters she studies.

Nora is also a girl with few friends, but those friends she has mean the world to her. When those friends are threatened, it makes sense that Nora risks everything by going to Prague to get answers.

The letters that Nora studies are those of a teenage Elizabeth: Elizabeth’s father is dead, she is living in poverty while trying to regain her family’s property and position in court, she misses her brother and she is falling in love. Whether it’s because Nora knows what it’s like to live with secrets, or because she knows about grief, or about feeling alone, or has just begun to fall in love, she begins to identify with Elizabeth Weston.

Nora sweeps the reader into the story of how she began working on translating the Weston letters, of the friendship between herself, Chris, and Adriane, of falling in love with Chris’s roommate Max and, I confess, I forgot. I forgot the blood; or, rather, I wasn’t prepared for it. I was as shocked as Nora by the blood and broken bodies.

Nora isn’t stupid, and quickly realizes that there must be something more to the Book and the letters, something important, something worth killing for. Her pursuit of the truth, of who killed Chris, takes her to Prague. Prague is where Elizabeth Weston lived, and as her letters reveal, Weston herself knew the secrets of the Voynich manuscript and hid clues around Prague for her beloved brother to find.

Prague; even though this is a Prague of blood and murder and secrets and lies, Wasserman’s descriptions were such that I want to visit that city and see the ancient buildings.

Without being too spoilery, it turns out that the Book contains instructions to create the Lumen Dei, a machine that is a “miracle and it is [a] curse. It is bridge from human to divine. It is knowledge and power of God in the hands of man.” Two groups have sprung up around the Lumen Dei: the Hledaci, or “seekers,” who want the power of the Lumen Dei, and the Fidei Defensor, those who want to protect the world from the Lumen Dei. It is between these two groups of zealots that Nora finds herself, unsure of her role, not knowing which group killed Chris.

I’m afraid there isn’t much more I can tell, because part of the wonder of The Book of Blood and Shadow is the twists and turns it takes.

Because Nora was smart and brave. Because it makes Latin and history and learning and being smart cool and fun. Because it brings history alive. Because the Voynich manuscript, Edward Kelley and Elizabeth Weston are all real. Because I believed in Elizabeth’s own story so fully I forgot I only knew it through her own letters. Because now I want to go to Prague. Because Nora and her friends are a diverse cast of characters. Because it’s a standalone book. For all these reasons, The Book of Blood and Shadow is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.


5 thoughts on “Review: The Book of Blood and Shadow

  1. LOVED this book. I was hooked from the title page where there were all the cool Voynich illustrations. Then I got too far along to stop reading before bed and was up all night.


  2. Oh God. I am incredibly excited. And not just because I’m a Czech-centric Slavicist who was already obsessed with the Voynich. Though I’m sure that helps. ::enters library request:: Itch to return to Prague… commence!


  3. Kate M, I didn’t even touch on the terrific book design, including those illustrations. I read this from an e-ARC, and they worked great in that version.

    Kate, oh, I’ll be interested in how this works for someone with more knowledge of Voynich and Prague than me.


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