Standalone Saturday ... Book of Blood and Shadows

Reviews of great standalone Young Adult books

Book of Blood and Shadow
Review of Book of Blood and Shadow

by Robin Wasserman

Knopf Books for Young Readers

April 10, 2012

Source: borrowed from the library

My summary: Nora, a senior at Chapman Prep in Massachusetts, grew up in a literary family, daughter of a Latin professor father and a bookseller mother. The three of them quietly mourn Nora's brother, who plowed his car into a tree, killing himself and his girlfriend. When Nora's best friend Chris suggests that she join him and his roommate Max on a team researching a trove of letters related to the Voynich manuscript, she's skeptical. The crusty professor in charge asks her to translate letters written by Elizabeth Kelley, daughter of a late sixteenth-century alchemist.  She discovers a mysterious clue, then tragedy strikes. Chris is murdered, his girlfriend Adriane left catatonic, while Max is missing.  Nora begins to suspect that her team has stumbled upon clues to an ancient treasure hidden by a secret society, clues that will send her to the historic city of Prague, where she'll be running for her life.

My take: It's hard to know what to call this book -- a literary mystery, a code-cracking thriller, a high stakes treasure hunt. It's all of those things in one. The Book of Blood and Shadow is intricately plotted, seamlessly blending past with present and fact with fiction.

Crypto-geeks and aspiring spies like me know that codes and encrypted messages date back to ancient times. The Voynich manuscript, believed to have been written in the fifteenth century, surfaced in 1912. Since then, amateur and professional cryptographers have tried --- and failed --  to crack its code.

I loved the way Robin Wasserman weaves real sixteenth-century figures (Emperor Rudoph II, alchemist Edward Kelley and his daughter) and real places into her story. I've never been to Prague, where a large part of the book takes place, and I loved the way that Wasserman drew on the city's rich history and landmarks to add historical detail and a strong sense of place. She also creates a truly creepy ancient secret society centered around black magic and alchemy. I can't say more without spoilers!

To that, add an intriguing cast of fictional kids. Nora is wary and prickly, making a great foil to nice-guy Chris. The book's blurb says that Max is Nora's "Prince Charming," but to me, the tangle of relationships in this book is way more complicated than that.  Nora is secretly in love with Chris but dating Max. After Chris is murdered, his enigmatic cousin Eli appears, insisting on accompanying Nora and Adriane to Prague.

The Book of Blood and Shadow kept me spellbound until the last page. I've seen comparisons of this book to the DaVinci Code by Dan Brown. I enjoyed DaVinci Code as much as the next person, and I do see the similarities: scholars, secret societies, running for one's life.

As I was reading The Book of Blood and Shadow, my mind was going in more literary directions. I was reminded of:

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Possession by A.S. Byatt is a literary mystery/romance that won the Man Booker prize in 1990. Two rival scholars, each researching a different Victorian poet, begin to suspect that their research subjects may have carried on a secret affair. I love this book so much!

The Secret History by Donna Tartt involves an erudite group of college friends, an ancient ritual, and a murder.

Frankenstein features black magic of sorts, raising interesting questions about what happens when men try to play God.

But that's the way my mind works. Results may vary. Pick this book up if you like historical intrigue, treasure hunts, books about secret societies, great travelogues, heart-pounding suspense.

What do you think? What are you reading this weekend?


  1. This book is SO me! I LOVE secret societies and books that deal with codes and cryptograpghy and such! Have you read The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell or The Eight by Katherine Neville? Both books have similar themes and are all sorts of awesome:) Your review has me bumping this one up on my tbr list Jen:))

    1. This books is SO up your dark alley!

      I think I might have read Rule of Four.

      I don't read too many Secret Society books as they fuel my paranoid tendencies....

    2. Well we can't have THAT! The Eight has secret societies plus takes real historical figures and weaves them into a fictional story (what's that called again?) Anyway the time frame is the French Revolution and present day(though the book was written back in the early 80s I think.) It's one of my faves (can you tell?:)

    3. Yes, there's a typo in my first comment. Tempted to delete and redo but am trying to be less OCD....
      I'll put The Eight on my summer reading list. It sounds really fun.

  2. I almost bought this book yesterday when I was at B&N. It sounds awesome and it is gorgeous in real life!! Fantastic review chick! Now you are making me wish I had gotten it. I am trying to be good about not buying too many books until I get through some of my pile first.

    1. I think you'd like it!!
      But I hear you on the pile. I just went to the bookstore today and bought a TON of stuff.

  3. Yes, this is ANOTHER book I've really been wanting to read. I need more time in the day! LOL! Great review Jen. I will read this one day... :-)

    1. Definitely put it on your list. Maybe in the summer you can have more time to read...

  4. Nora is secretly in love with Chris but dating Max. After Chris is murdered, his enigmatic cousin Eli appears. Then Max is missing!

    WHOA! Complicated! LOL I do like codes and mysteries. I've been unsure about adding this to my TBR list. Sounds a little confusing but I might like it.

    1. I had to re-check to make sure I got that right.

      No, it is not confusing, But you do have to pay attention while you are reading!!

  5. I have to say that the cover for THE BOOK OF BLOOD AND SHADOW seems so ordinary & belies the storyline. The story sounds exciting & very interesting.

    1. You non-US readers may get a different cover -- I saw another version posted recently and it was completely different!!

  6. I totally want to read this! Treasure hunts? Yea! And those other books that you mentioned sound good as well. I hadn't heard of those except for Frankenstein, of course, but I'm adding them to my TBR list! Great review, Jen! ;)

  7. You make this sound so good!!! I want to read it! I want to read it now! :)

  8. This book really surprised me. Toward the beginning I didn't know what to think of it, but as the mystery was unfolding . . . it was actually really really good. Anyway great review!

    grace (Help Me Sleep Better)


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