Author: Elizabeth Kostova
Genre: historical fiction
Published: expected April 11 2017
Source: publishers via NwtGalley
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.
Elizabeth Kostova has been a favorite author of mine for almost fifteen years, despite a relatively low output in that amount of time. Her first novel, The Historian, ranks among my top-five all-time favorite books -- of any genre. She followed up that supremely atmospheric, gothic supernatural debut with something a little different; her sophomore work The Art Thieves was a total departure in tone, plot, and character. With The Shadow Land, her third published novel to date, Kostova once again employs the narrative structure of dual, connected storylines in different eras, though she tackles new themes and ideas her historical look at Bulgaria.
Descriptive, layered, and detailed, Kostova's style is storytelling is given to be rather verbose. Her brand of storytelling relies heavily on using the setting and research to help foster the plot; this is an author that can recreate a vivid time and place. The plot of The Shadow Land is narrowly focused and centered on an American teacher Alexandra Boyd ("Bird"), a mysterious figure named Stoyan Lazarov, and the history of Bulgaria as experienced by those two characters in their differing times. The beginning of the novel is rather slow and takes time to create any real tension or suspense for Alex or her stalwart cab driver Bobby ("Bo-bi"!). Still, it's easy to fall into Kostova's recreated Sofia thanks to the author's obvious due diligence when it came to research.
I did like this novel, but have to admit it is my least favorite Kostova. I am sad to say that for all its merits, and while technically proficient and impressive, it lacks an emotional connection. Even though Kostova is given using emotionally-distant narrators and main characters, it was hard to engage with Alex's inner monologue. For the first half of the book her main emotion is tiredness and general helplessness; hoping someone else will find the solution to her problem. I missed the agency and decisiveness of past protagonists from this author; I also missed the chemistry between love interests. Though Bird and Bobby are great friends, theirs is a bond that's purely platonic and it lacks the oomph. Simply put: this book lacked the ability to create emotional investment. I was more drawn into the story for the writing itself than for the outcome of Alex/Stoyan's stories.
The Shadow Land is a novel that showcases the power of the past, combined with this author's usual descriptive style to create a good historical fiction in an often-overlooked country.