Book blurb, from Random House Publishing Group/Ballantine – From the #1 bestselling author of The Historian comes an engrossing novel that spans the past and the present—and unearths the dark secrets of Bulgaria, a beautiful and haunted country. A young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, has traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria, hoping that life abroad will salve the wounds left by the loss of her beloved brother. Soon after arriving in this elegant East European city, however, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi—and realizes too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers that she is holding an urn filled with human ashes. As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she will first have to uncover the secrets of a talented musician who was shattered by oppression—and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger. Kostova’s new novel is a tale of immense scope that delves into the horrors of a century and traverses the culture and landscape of this mysterious country. Suspenseful and beautifully written, it explores the power of stories, the pull of the past, and the hope and meaning that can sometimes be found in the aftermath of loss.
I will just jump right into this review: I felt the quality of this book fell short of what I’d hoped for, especially after my excitement to have another novel by the author of The Historian. The story is not bad, but it is also not great. The writing certainly is not bad, but it also is not the subtle and tugging language I had expected. I found nothing specific to dislike, but also very little to recommend the book as one people should dedicate time out of their lives to read.
One notable exception: Kostova’s description of music in general, and the playing of a violin in particular, was nearly enough to bring the fictional notes alive in my ears – these several passages were among my favorites in the text, and among the best written in all of the novel.
The most intense scenes in the novel (flashbacks, for the record), often difficult for the writer to craft, were the best written and most powerful sections of the novel. Again, confusion for me as reader, that the more “mundane” moments were not written with equal clarity and beauty. I want a consistent, lovely experience as I read. [That’s the ideal.] A terrible or mediocre experience, acceptable for consistency’s sake. The medley of quality in this text detracted from my experience of the novel – but I will reiterate again, the highs were very good. (Reminding me of The Historian, which was so well written and uniform.)
I did also enjoy the development of characters in this novel, especially the very elderly from the countryside of Bulgaria. They had an honest and genuine feel as characters, nothing contrived. The main two characters, however, sometimes felt forced, as opposed to behaving how they naturally might in any given situation. In fact, the flashbacks and stories throughout the novel resonated much better than the current turns of events in the text.
The ending of the novel also caught my attention – a twist, unexpected but not unbelievable or trite. Very well handled, leaving the reader on a high note as the story slowly comes to a close.
The novel is an odd mix – I like the characters, but never really develop concern for them. The novel is not flat, but also fails to draw the reader into the story in the way a truly great novel does. The suspense of the situation is managed well, but never reaches a level of interactive suspense for the reader. There’s just something missing, a connective dynamic with the text that simply never establishes itself, though most everything about the novel is quite good.
All in all, I would have to say this – The Shadow Land is an enjoyable book, and I would not dissuade anyone from reading it. But The Historian was a far better representation of the author’s ability, and I would recommend that book much more heartily than her new one.