The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman
This YA mystery has it all: international intrigue, romance, betrayal, gorgeous settings, rich history, metaphysical questions, puzzling codes, riddling clues, and good sentences. I had a ton of fun reading it. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who likes history and suspense. It’s been compared to The Da Vinci Code, but I think The Book of Blood and Shadow is less gimmicky and has a main character with more psychological depth.
In the book’s opening, Nora, the narrator, has discovered her best friend dead, and her boyfriend is the prime suspect. The murder is related to the scholarly research the friends had been doing along with their professor: translating the letters of a 16th-century girl whose father was alchemist to the Holy Roman Emperor. Nora feels connected to this girl in some strange way, and she hides some of this evidence from the police and investigates it on her own. The search takes her to Prague, where she finds the boyfriend, and another boy–who claims to be her dead friend’s cousin–finds her.
It turns out that the alchemist had discovered the Lumen Dei, the light of God, a machine that allows humans to communicate directly with the divine. And the two boys represent two warring factions with differing opinions on this machine–one wants to use it and the other wants to destroy it. A love triangle develops about halfway through the book, and is left kind of unresolved at the end, which is ok with me because this romance is a subplot and the main story felt plenty resolved.
I think the best thing Wasserman does is linking the suspense of the 400-year-old mystery and Macguffin-seeking with issues in the relationships between the characters, and whether or not they trust and forgive each other. When the interpretation of clues depends on whether or not a character is lying, and when the story from the Renaissance that’s unraveled has such personal significance for the protagonist, that adds another layer of meaning and keeps the story from feeling like a pointless scavenger hunt.
In the midst of all this spying, counter-spying, and digging for clues, Wasserman is able to use language expertly to heighten suspense and build a fascinating setting. There are great descriptions of Prague as a palimpsest, each century writing on top of the last. Nora’s fear, confusion, and emotional turmoil are related in a way that feels honest and psychologically realistic.
Even in a book with so much going on, Wasserman does not neglect to have her characters stop to discuss the metaphysical implications of a machine that allows God to speak directly to humans. However, she doesn’t let the story get bogged down with these questions of faith and ultimate reality. The ending reminded me of Raiders of the Lost Ark, conveniently allowing Wasserman to avoid having to actually answer these impossible questions.