February 21, 2012

Vox Dei (Review of The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman)

The Book of Blood and Shadow
Robin Wasserman
Atom 2012

After an all consuming family tragedy, Nora Kane feels like her life is starting to get back on track.  Enjoying her final year of high school, she spends much of her free time doing Latin translation for extra credit.  Doesn’t sound like much fun but it involves her two best friends, her new boyfriend a bundle of curious correspondence and the mysterious Voynich manuscript.  As Nora, Chris, Adriane and Max slowly translate letter after mysterious letter Nora’s bond with the 15th century writer, Elizabeth Weston, grows.  Elizabeth talks of a strange device that seems to be shadowing her every waking moment and slowly but surely it starts to haunt Nora too.  As the letters slowly reveal Elizabeth's dark history Nora finds herself in the midst of modern day horror – one friend is dead, one is insane and her boyfriend has disappeared.  Desperate to find meaning in such madness, Nora heads to Prague and the Lumen Dei, the device at the heart of it all, said to allow the user to hear the voice of God.

Nora is not the easiest character to get to know.  She’s tough and fairly uncompromising, unwilling to let people in and still grieving for a family that has been forever changed by tragedy.  While shocked at the events at the start of The Book of Blood and Shadow, she seems almost unsurprised that her life has taken another tragic turn.  She’s clearly incredibly smart and also incredibly loyal but her interactions with other characters often seem tenuous, as if she’s holding part of herself back.  As the story progresses and she finds it increasingly hard to trust anyone around her, this aspect of her personality comes to the fore yet she is never unlikable. Rather she is understandable.  Her close friendship with Adriane is particularly raw and it is to Wasserman’s credit that she allows Nora to be honest with herself about this relationship rather than clinging to sentiment.

Adriane herself is interesting in that she seems to be entirely shallow, despite evidence to the contrary.  She’s not easy to warm to, seeming selfish and dismissive of worries that Nora might have. Yet she clearly feels deeply and as her carefree fa├žade slips she become pitiable, if not exactly likeable.  Max, as Nora’s boyfriend, seems to have been sketched intentionally lightly.  He at different times comes across as sweet, sinister, lost and sly.  He’s terribly cleverly written and readers will never know exactly where they stand with him.  The same could be said for Eli, who appears out of the blue, offering help yet clearly lying to all around him.  The combination of Adriane, Max and Eli is skilful.  They all clearly care for Nora, yet all seem to have personal agendas.  It’s a clever mix when combined with Nora’s naturally distrustful nature, leaving readers unsure what is real threat and what is fear-driven paranoia.

The storyline running through The Book of Blood and Shadow is fairly ambitious.  The novel is structured nicely with the letters of Elizabeth Weston liberally sprinkled throughout the book, acting almost as an historic treasure map.  The story really comes alive when the action moves from America to Prague and the climax of the novel is thrillingly dramatic.  The writing as a whole is excellent, with Wasserman bringing the streets of Prague alive in the tiny details Nora notices as she walks through the city.  The book contains a lot of information, secret societies abounding and historic monuments around every corner, yet the plot never becomes convoluted (although sometimes only avoids being so by a hair’s breadth). The letters of Elizabeth Weston evoke a time of Alchemists and Emperors and hold their own charm and intrigue so that while they sometimes seem to go on forever, it’s easy to forgive. 

In writing The Book of Blood and Shadow, Wasserman has brought an entirely new style to YA.  While loathe to compare anything to the ghastly Da Vinci Code, The Book of Blood and Shadow treads similar paths, using real life figures and events to create modern day intrigue and horror.  However, Wasserman never seems to dumb things down for her audience and her skilled writing is some of the best that I’ve read in recent YA fiction. The Book of Blood and Shadow is what Dan Brown could come up with only in his wildest dreams (the ones in which he can actually write fiction and develop character) and I hope that it is the first of many from Robin Wasserman as it is truly a pleasure to read.

The Book of Blood and Shadow is available now.  Thank you to the publisher for providing me with a copy of this title to review.

February 07, 2012

Sing What Was Lost and Dread What Was Won (Review: Froi of the Exiles by Melina Marchetta)

Froi of the Exiles          
Melina Marchetta
Candlewick Press 2011

Froi of the Exiles is the second title in The Chronicles of Lumatere. As such, this review contains spoilers for book one in the series, Finnikin of the Rock. You have been warned.

Three years have passed since the events of Finnikin of the Rock  Time is slowly healing the physical landscape but the people still suffer, struggling to overcome memories of unspeakable pain. Finnikin juggles family life with tenuous political alliances, Lucian struggles to lead his Monts and deal with a wife he doesn’t want while refugees from hated Charyn have started to flood into a Lumateran valley. In the midst of this turmoil works Froi, who has found a place for himself working for the land while training as a Guard. He’s happy to live quietly but when an assassin is required to infiltrate Charyn, Froi with his oddly un-Lumateran looks, is the first choice… and the people of Lumatere are rebuilding their homeland.

Froi has grown from a snarling thief, struggling with a new language to a clever young man.  While still rough around the edges and inclined to speak his mind rather too often, Froi’s desire to make himself useful has not left him as he tries to prove himself to his beloved friends and monarch. Once unleashed on Charyn, Froi has only his bond to guide him and as this becomes increasingly confused he worries about a darkness that he believes lies deep beneath him.  However, his interactions with others show that deep down, despite his inner savage, Froi has a good heart – he just doesn’t always know how to show it.

Much as Evanjalin stole the show in Finnikin of the Rock, Quintana of Charyn rather steals Froi of the Exiles. Quintana is not a pleasant character and in fact does not become one at any point.  Teetering on the brink of outright insanity she swings between childlike temper and icy cruelty, like a ragged Alice who has stepped through the looking glass into a land unimaginable in its sexual savagery and familial hopelessness. As the story progresses her character sharpens but never becomes softer. While the interactions between her and Froi highlight a gentleness in his character, they only highlight the savageness of hers. Yet she is entirely pitiable and also admirable in that her horrendous life has not broken her completely. 

Back in Lumatere, Lucian’s character is expanded upon beautifully.  As a young man, grieving his father and leading an impossibly stubborn people, he struggles believably. Through Lucian, we see the Charyn refugees and finally learn more about the country so hated by the Lumaterans. It is through Lucian that readers see how raw the Lumateran wounds still are, how frightened and suspicious the people remain and how grey the lines between Lumatere and Charyn are becoming.

The story of Froi of the Exiles is a harsh one. Lumatere and it’s people may have suffered horribly at the hands of Charyn and but it seems that the Charynites have been a cursed race for far longer and their Citavita, the royal city in which Froi finds himself, is a place of base violence and sexual depravity almost beyond imagining with a frightened king, insane princess and Machiavellian advisor at it’s heart.  It is not, to be frank, an easy read. Marchetta never backs away from the horrors of Charyn’s past and Charyn is a country with rape embedded, even sanctioned, in its skin. There are few characters who have not suffered horribly at the hands of other men. While both Lumatere and Charyn have been cursed in different ways, it is not these curses that have engendered such sorrow but the evil that men have done in their name.

Marchetta’s writing is, as always, impressive. In Froi of the Exiles she writes in perhaps a starker fashion than previously seen but this suits the story. As in Finnikin of the Rock she has the uncanny ability to conjure modern reality in high fantasy. The events in Charyn, and previously in Lumatere, are reminiscent of the hellish stories of systematic rape in Bosnia while the Charynites camping on the Lumateran border speak of refugees the world over. Many may find the subject matter of Froi of the Exiles difficult, perhaps even inappropriate, but that’s a hard argument to make when we live in a world where these things have been witnessed time and time again.  Marchetta is never gratuitous and, at the heart of her story, is a message of strength – that many are strong in the broken places and that all is not lost. Once again I highly recommend a Melina Marchetta title. Hell, I recommend ALL her titles.

Froi of the Exiles is available in the UK on 13th March, 2012. Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for providing The Mountains of Instead with this title to review.