When I first started getting into adult books, Elizabeth Kostova was one of the authors who really cemented historical fiction as my favorite genre. There was a time when I pretty much read exclusively Kostova’s and Philippa Gregory’s books (Kostova has only published three to date – including this one – and you can only read The Historian so many times in a year). Her writing is definitely an influential part of my evolution as a reader, and I will always count her books among my favorites. Naturally, I was incredibly excited to see that she (finally) released another book this year, The Shadow Land.
P. S. My apologies for the slightly belated review – I’d meant to get this up much earlier, but life got in the way.
(From Goodreads) 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.
First of all, LOOK at that cover! I’m 99% sure that alone would have enticed me to pick up this book had I come across it in a bookstore (and not been eagerly awaiting it’s release). I’m going to go ahead and say it’s okay to judge this book by it’s cover, because the inside is just as beautiful as the outside.
The Shadow Land is epic. If you’ve read either of Elizabeth Kostova’s other novels, you’ll probably understand just how magical her writing can be. I have never come across an author who can so expertly weave a story that is entirely incomplete until the last moment. She writes mystery better than many mystery writers I’ve encountered, and this book is no exception. It’s a wonderful mix of slow, detailed historical fiction and edge-of-your-seat intrigue. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect going into this book, because it’s been years since I’ve read Kostova’s writing, but, within just a few pages, I immediately recalled why I adored her so much all those years ago. She knows how to write a story.
The characters themselves are really interesting. I love when historical fiction (or just general fiction) delves into Eastern Europe, because it always seems to bring out characters with big personalities. I don’t want to spoil any of the characters for you, because discovering each of them was like finding a hidden gem. I will say that I didn’t love the main character, Alexandra, as much as I wanted to, though I did identify with her quite a bit. As I got deeper into the book, I found myself more attached to Bobby, her gay Bulgarian taxi-driver-turned-friend, who is also a former detective and current award-winning poet. If that doesn’t give you an idea of how detailed and unique Kostova’s characters are, I don’t know what will.
The things I didn’t care for are minor, but, for the sake of a comprehensive review, I do want to mention them. In the first part of the novel, the point of view changes back and forth from third- to first-person, which I thought was a good way to distinguish past and present events. However, it’s not revealed until about page 35 that both are told from the perspective of the same character, which was really confusing and a bit jarring (for some reason, I’d assumed one of them was male, which totally threw me off). It was clearly done for effect, but I’m not sure my reaction was the intended one. I also thought the story was a little bit too long. There is a lot of back and forth travel, and once I got to the last hundred pages or so, I was definitely starting to get impatient.
As a whole, I think The Shadow Land is a fantastic example of historical fiction. It definitely compliments Kostova’s other writing (which I now want to revisit), and tells a story that feels unlike anything else I’ve read. I definitely enjoyed this book, and am glad to have it in my library.
I think this is more of a 4.5-star read for me, but I rounded up to 5. It was a really great novel. If you’re a fan of historical fiction, I highly recommend picking this one up.
The Shadow Land is available in bookstores now. You can order your copy of The Shadow Land on Amazon!
If you’re interested in listening to the audiobook, all you have to do to get a copy for free is sign up for a free trial of Audible (using this link) and choose The Shadow Land as one of your two free books (which you get to keep even if you cancel).
Thank you to Ballantine Books and Random House for generously providing me with this book in exchange for my unbiased review.