Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Shadow Land - Elizabeth Kostova

I've written about Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian previously - I loved that book. I'm going to ignore the fact that her second book, The Swan Thieves, exists at all. It's better that way.

Last night, I finished her third book, The Shadow Land, which takes place in Bulgaria. Although it is a work of fiction, this novel nevertheless delves deeply into the period of Soviet control that occurred after WWII (from 1944-1989, and primarily from 1944-1962, as she notes in her Author's Message at the end). Labor camps, discrimination, and punishment without trial or sentencing were rampant. It's books like these that remind me how much world history, even relatively recent history, I don't yet know.

Much like The Historian, this tale unfolds through current events in the life of our main character, Alexandra Boyd, and via written accounts from other characters. I love Kostova's method of blending several distinct stories and timelines into one cohesive story. Not every author can create such complexity while maintaining an identifiable thread throughout. The woven plot of The Shadow Land made it particularly hard for me to stop reading at a reasonable hour of the evening, because she gives away so little of each story at a time. I wanted to know everything about each person, which meant reading huge chunks at a time. This came in handy when I hit the firsthand account of a prisoner in one of the Bulgarian labor camps. The imagery was brutal. Let's just say the guards' weapon of choice was the wooden club. As much as I wanted to know everything, I had to put the book down and recover from a couple of the more stomach-churning sections before I could continue.

That being said, this book wasn't quite as magical as I wanted it to be. A few of the story lines were wrapped up a little too perfectly to be believed. If that was the case in The Historian, I didn't notice, because my disbelief was already happily suspended for the historical fantasy. The Shadow Land is a more conventional work of historical fiction, though, so those instances were jarring and a little annoying. In fact, they become more annoying the further I get from having finished the book, because I keep ruminating on them - it's definitely clouded my overall judgment. To me, it just feels like the author trying a little too hard to show the reader how clever she is. As a writer myself, I know firsthand how tempting that can be to do, but it rarely makes for a fun read.

Still, I'm glad I read this one. If anything, reading a "close but not quite" book is the best thing for me, because it serves as inspiration to work on my own novel. My critiques turn into clearly-defined goals for my own writing. I can't wait to have it finished, so I can share it with all of you!

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