The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman

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The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Linda Lawlor
Reviewed by Linda Lawlor
Summary: Nora's best friend is dead, and her boyfriend Max is a suspect. She is determined to prove his innocence, and how the murder is related to the translation work the four friends had been working on. But her journey across continents and centuries leads her to question everything and everyone she has ever known.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: January 2011
Publisher: Atom
External links: [ Author's website]
ISBN: 9781907411441

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Nora is an unusual heroine. She is sharp, snarky and funny, and her wry tone and contemporary references will resonate with her readers. But she is also uncompromisingly geeky, and she opts to complete her independent study assignment by joining her three friends at the local university in a research project on the Voynich Manuscript by Edward Kelley (This manuscript actually exists, and has taxed the abilities of some of the greatest code-breakers in the world in the last hundred years.). However Professor Hoffpauer does not consider Nora mature enough to work on the manuscript itself, despite the fact that her linguistic ability is far superior to that of the others, and instead he gives her the lesser task of translating the letters of Kelley's step-daughter Elizabeth Weston.

But The Hoff, as they call him, is wrong about the importance of the letters. Nora finds clues which open the way to deciphering the manuscript, and at the same time finds herself deeply in sympathy with the girl who died over four centuries earlier. This identification leads her to steal Elizabeth's final letter in the mistaken belief that it is simply an expression of her grief at losing her brother, as Nora herself has, and therefore should be kept private. But the letter contains information crucial to the rediscovery of an extraordinary invention, the Lumen Dei, and in the search for it Chris is murdered by one of the shadowy societies which have sought the machine since Elizabeth hid it so long ago.

Nora, along with Chris's girlfriend Adriane, sneaks away from a school trip and makes her way to Prague, hoping to find information which will clear Max of the accusation of murder. On the one hand she is as practical and wary as any modern girl should be, but she is also a girl who has suffered a terrible bereavement, not to mention the family fallout which ensued, and once she falls for a boy she loves unconditionally and joyfully. This makes her take risks which plunge the two girls, plus the mysterious Eli, into a dangerous world of conspiracies, obscure clues and secret societies.

This is not a book for anyone hoping to pass a pleasant, passive couple of hours of vicarious thrills and adventures. It certainly does contain a high incidence of edge-of-the-seat moments, but it also provides a plethora of details about the life and beliefs of Edward, Elizabeth and their family, which demand an intelligent response from the reader. Not that you have to, for example, understand the Latin and Czech phrases which provide most of the the clues (they are all translated, and their significance discussed by the friends), but a willingness to understand what the fusion of religion and science meant to those ancient alchemists is essential. There are even a few discussions on religion throughout the book, thought they are all pertinent to the story and not so extended that they slow down the action. They are, too, perfectly in keeping with the character of the heroine, a bright and inquisitive girl who is a lapsed Jew and who has recently, through the death of her brother and the severe injuries caused to another character, found herself confronted by questions about the real value of life and death.

In many ways this feels like an adult thriller, with all the chases and villains and complex mysteries that entails. True, by the end of the book all the major strands of the plot will be dealt with, and the survivors will return to some semblance of normality, but there is none of the magical happy-ever-after a book for younger readers might offer. Parents don't suddenly cease to be self-absorbed, people you trusted do turn out to be evil, and love isn't guaranteed. That being said, however, it is indubitably a young adult book because of the emphasis placed on the relationships between the friends, which are articulated, especially by Nora and Adriane, with all the freshness and at the same time all the self-doubt of the adolescent. There is nothing jaded or cynical about these young people. The ending is rather surprising, as it changes tone so completely that it almost becomes another book, but for the reader willing to suspend disbelief reading this book will provide a highly enjoyable experience.

Another excellent book which looks at how the beliefs and practices of our forebears affect young people is Prisoner of the Inquisition by Theresa Breslin. And if you're in the mood for a classic of the genre, try The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, still a great read despite the dated language.

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