The Book of Blood and Shadow is the first book I read where reading the review copy actually impinged significantly on my enjoyment of the story. All review copies are going to have some mistakes, and they usually don't bug me. They're occasionally jarring, but don't interrupt the flow of the story or draw my attention away from some really good writing.
Unfortunately, this review copy (with a plain black cover and red text) was riddled with errors. I started reading it well before the book was published, set it down, and then came back to it several months later when the hardcover was already out. I really should have traded it in for the finished copy at that point, but the arc was too handy. It was certainly a lesson to me.
I mention all this before I get into the nitty gritty of the review because the errors greatly influenced my reading experience. I've a feeling a lot of my problems were due to my reading the unfinished version.
There's no doubt the plot is intriguing (it's what drew me to the book in the first place). Nora is working on a special project for a professor at the local university, alongside her best friend Chris and Chris' roommate Max. While Chris and Max (both college students) work closely with the professor in his attempt to decipher the famous Voynich manuscript - a book full of secrets, written in code - Nora (a senior in high school) is given a series of related letters to translate from Latin into modern English. Nora and Max eventually start dating, and Wasserman excels at making this romance sweet and believable.
But then Chris is murdered, and his girlfriend (and Nora's friend) Adriane is found kneeling over his body, covered in blood and catatonic. Max is nowhere to be found, and he quickly shoots to the top of the suspect list. Convinced that Max is innocent, Nora and Adriane (once she recovers) set out to discover who killed Chris, and why. This journey takes them to Prague, where they're pulled deep into a dangerous conspiracy involving a device that people say could link them to God - and the letters Nora was translating, written by a young woman named Elizabeth Weston, hold the key.
There's an incredible amount of danger here, and it's real danger - Wasserman doesn't skimp on the violence. It's kind of harrowing to think about, really. Here are these two kids, completely alone in a foreign land where nobody really speaks their language, and they're being pursued by at least two different groups who intend them serious harm. Add to that the fact that they soon discover no one can be trusted, and the sense of paranoia reaches epic proportions.
So, I liked this book. But I didn't love it. What bothered me most is that the story seemed choppy. Sometimes I had to read a few paragraphs over to determine what precisely had happened. Occasionally a reference would be missing or a pronoun incorrect. Since the book also included frequent typos and grammatical errors, I feel sure that the choppiness was fixed in final edits. Ultimately, it stopped me from becoming fully immersed in the story.
A lot of what didn't work for me I can write off as a matter of taste. Nora begins by trusting her friends and boyfriend completely, and that trust is put to the test time and again throughout the story. Almost all of the people close to Nora morph into thoroughly unlikeable people, and by the end of the story, it just made me feel depressed. I do like some books that are quite dark, but this one rubbed me the wrong way. I'm being purposely vague here so as not to spoil anything, but I can say that there's a difference between a book that kills off the protagonist's loved ones and a book that robs the protagonist of her loved ones in other ways. I just felt awful for Nora and thankful her story wasn't real. (Did I mention that Nora's younger brother died in a drunk driving accident a few years ago? Girl cannot catch a break.)
Despite my issues with it, the book should have high appeal. It's got a great hook, the pace is quick, the mood is spot on, and it's different enough from the usual fare to spark interest. It's a smart, mature book that should appeal to anyone who's ever been interested in any of history's famous mysteries (Stonehenge, Easter Island, the Shroud of Turin, etc.). Nora's voice also comes through nice and strong, something I always appreciate.
Review copy received from the publisher. The Book of Blood and Shadow is available now.