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.My experience reading The Book of Blood and Shadow – “BoBS” from here on because that’s a long-ass title to keep typing out – was pretty much my experience reading The Immortal Rules, but in reverse. I was mesmerized by BoBS from page one. The writing was lovely, the characters engaging yet flawed, the relationships complex, and the premise intriguing. I was prepared to build this book a shrine in my basement and sacrifice my firstborn on its alter.
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.
Then I got to Part Two. And my infatuation began to wane.
But let’s focus on Part One first, because I very much enjoyed it. Browsing GR, I’ve read complaints about a “slow start”, but for me, the “slow start” was exactly what drew me in. I loved that the book began with a glimpse of our heroine, Nora, and her friends’ “now” – something bad has happened, but we aren’t told exactly what it is. We know someone’s dead, and roughly who is involved, but Nora is vague about the details, and puts a kibosh on progression before we can learn any more. We have to know more about them, she says, they have to mean something to us before we can go further in the story. So she takes us back to the beginning, to her recollection of before, so that we get to know the people that this story will eventually be about.
It’s a smart move. I loved everything about this prologue. The execution is stellar – we’re given something to look forward to, while at the same time having our anticipation heightened by being denied full access. This is what a good prologue should do, dammit, and I was happy to see it used to great effect. What’s more, I loved the rationalization – Wasserman is showing us what’s up, what’s important, and I was pleased to see that she seemed to give a shit about whether or not we cared about the characters.
After recalling her first meeting with best friends and supporting characters Chris and Adriane – that, in one scene, gives us a good sense of both the characters and their relationship dynamics – we skip to where the events that directly lead to the prologue began: with Nora’s involvement in a project to help translate an untranslatable book.
Words cannot express how much this premise intrigued me. I mean, an untranslatable book with a mysterious history that people had tried for years to crack? FUCK YEAH, I’ll take me some of that, please and thank you. It only got better with the addition of a secondary narrative that chronicled the early history of the book and its contents, in the form of centuries-old letters that Nora’s been tasked with translating. Bit-by-bit, we gather more and more information about the book – what it is, what it’s about, and what it could lead to – all the while getting to know the characters and watching their relationships develop.
This, to me, is how it should be done. It seems like these days most books I read are plot-based – the emphasis is on what’s happening, and less about who it’s happening to. Wasserman does a better job balancing that here, making the “who” the focus of Part One, but inextricably tying it to the “what”. So we get great scenes where our heroine translates her plot-relevant letters while simultaneously developing the relationship with her love interest, or her friends, or herself. It was a breath of fresh air. I actually came to care about these characters, and to understand the nature of their relationships with one another – or at least, the heroine’s perception of them, which is something that factors into the book later on.
I was similarly enamored of Wasserman’s writing through Part One. It flowed very nicely, seamlessly integrating Nora’s thoughts and memories with the translations of Elizabeth’s letters, and her recollection of the events leading up to the prologue. The writing in Part One set a dark, tense mood, and even the lighthearted scenes of teenage fun and young love were tinged with loss. You don’t just know, but you feel that what you’re reading is meant to be bittersweet, and this makes the book all the more emotionally involving and engrossing.
Then we got to Part Two.
Part One ends with the Event described in the prologue – Part Two is where the story proper kicks off, which in essence makes the entirety of Part One a very well-executed, extended prologue itself. Part Two is where we start getting answers, and the vague outlines of our moody mystery begin to solidify into a more action-oriented scavenger hunt, a’la The Da Vinci Code.
That comparison has been thrown around a lot, but it really is fairly accurate. Part Two sees our mysterious, untranslatable book transform into a treasure map, a collection of cyphered riddles that spell out the location of pieces of an ancient device, which are spread across a handful of historical locales in Prague. BoBS raises the stakes by giving us not one, but two ancient religious cults willing to resort to murder in order to prevent our heroine and her friends from finding and assembling the device.
I wouldn’t normally consider this a problem. Da Vinci Code was big and dumb, but I enjoy the scavenger hunt plot as much as the next girl. That BoBS turned out this way wouldn’t have been so bad, if I hadn’t found it difficult to disconnect the high expectations set by the first half from the lackluster solution presented in the second. Part One was moody, mysterious, well-written, character-driven, dark, and rooted in reality. The characters were real and relatable – intelligent, aware, and active, while still being utterly ordinary. Part Two was shallower, plot-based, action-driven, mystical, and reduced the entire cast to caricatures.
Even setting aside my issues with the tonal dissonance, the second half of BoBS is painfully predictable. You get inklings of some of these twists in the first half, too, but it’s so stingy with information that you never know for sure whether or not it will take that route. The rest of the book is not as subtle. Once the plot’s direction is clear, the twists are so obvious that boatloads of plot-mandated stupidity are necessary to keep just the characters – especially Nora – from figuring them out.
Seriously, the level of DURR they display post-flashback is stunning sometimes. I mean really, if your best friend that you knew everything about died mysteriously and a “cousin” that you’ve never heard of shows up who a) looks nothing like him (different races, for Chrissakes), b) takes an unusual interest in you, and c) whose family hails from the same country as the owner of your mysterious, untranslatable book, then chances are, he PROBABLY KNOWS MORE THAN HE’S LETTING ON.
I thought you were better than this, Nora.
I was very disappointed with where the story took Nora, by the way. I’d almost reveled in her normalcy, in her competency, in her levelheadedness. At one point, I genuinely thought, “Well isn’t this refreshing? For once our protagonist is just your ordinary, everyday girl, not “chosen” or “special” or “destined”, just intelligent and determined and resourceful.”
SPOILER: IT TURNED OUT THE OPPOSITE.
Oh, cruel fate.
In fact, in the end, I was disappointed with most of the characters. Max, Nora’s boyfriend, initially stuck me as legitimately socially awkward. Not, say, Hollywood quirky or commercially geeky, but the kind of guy who’s genuinely a little awkward to speak to. Nice, but difficult. I know a lot of those guys, and it was nice to see them represented here, in all their unromantic glory. His and Nora’s relationship was sweet and grounded and normal. I really liked them together.
Unfortunately, Max ended up being a suave double-agent, a douche with enough confidence to carry on an affair with Nora’s hotter female BFF, Adriane.
Eli, Chris’ “cousin”, was a typical jerk-ass hitman with a heart of gold who ended up falling in love with his mark, Nora, because if we don’t have at least one slap-slap, kiss-kiss relationship, it’s not YA. I’d call it a downgrade, if not for the obvious.
And Adriane. OH, ADRIANE. I honestly thought that, for once, we’d have a relatively healthy relationship between female characters. Sure, there might have been an undercurrent of weariness on Adriane’s part, but that was part of the complexity. They’d overcome Adriane’s weariness, to become friends, to remain friends, to get closer in the wake of Chris’ death.
BUT THEN, it turns out that Adriane is sleeping with Nora’s boyfriend, of course! And not only is she screwing around, but she’s helping him capture Nora so that they can turn her over to his CRAZY CULT, the cult that she KNOWS has been chasing them and has tried to KILL THEM on several occasions. They’ve killed her own boyfriend, for Chrissakes. Sure, she sputters out of it later with a “but you told me you wouldn’t hurt her” and a “but you told me you didn’t kill him”, but it’s too little, too late. Once again, the only two female characters in a book largely populated by men cannot manage to sustain a functioning relationship without fighting over the penis. THE FUCK.
The plot also relies heavily on contrivance to continue rolling along, which I honestly might not have noticed as much, had the cast not felt the need to lampshade it, constantly. It was funny once or twice, but then, I began to agree. Yeah, you were pretty lucky that there was a random old lady there who knew what you were looking for. Yeah, having Nora’s father’s one scene in the entire book center around his providing her with the solution to one of her cypher clues was a bit of a “pater ex machina”, wasn’t it?
Most of the time, the contrivances struck me as unnecessary. The characters didn’t seem to be driven in to too much of a corner, so why the need to God-hand them out?
And to top it all off, I rather quickly fell out of my shiny-eyed love affair with the writing. I suspect this is because Part One, being composed entirely of Nora’s recollection of past events, is much better suited to Wasserman’s rambling narrative style than Part Two. Once the pace began to pick up, I noticed more and more the clash between Nora’s moody internal monologue and the action-based narrative that the book fell in to.
The comma abuse was absurd. A single sentences would drag on and on, rolling from one observation to the next, sometimes lasting entire paragraphs. I hadn’t noticed this as much while reading through Part One. Guess it turns out that long-ass pseudo-philosophical musings about the transient nature of airports really stick out when the narrative depth has been reduced to the level of a Dan Brown novel.
All in all, I feel like there were two different books here. Neither was particularly awful – in fact, one was quite good, and I might have enjoyed them both on their own terms. Unfortunately, I was spoiled by the promise of Part One. It worked far too well and set the bar far too high for a silly Dan Brown resolution to feel satisfying. But that’s the problem with intriguing premises – the solution almost never lives up to the potential. That being said, I would probably read another Wasserman book again, given the opportunity. And you could definitely do worse.