Book Review

Elizabeth Kostova’s THE SHADOW LAND

Kostova, Elizabeth - The Shadow Land - COVER
The Shadow Land
Author: Elizabeth Kostova
Format: eBook, courtesy of NetGalley and Ballantine Books
Start Date: April 20, 2017
End Date: May 3, 2017
Rating: 4 stars


She wondered at herself for feeling no fear; at home she would have been afraid of strangers prowling in the night, or even of ghosts, and here she might be followed by someone who wished her harm. But Stoycho was with her, and everything was so unfamiliar that she felt protected, as if she wasn’t actually present. I am the ghost myself.

I read Kostova’s The Swan Thieves six years ago, in July 2011, and was less-than-impressed (review here). My expectations were high when I started the book, but I felt that it didn’t deliver. Instead, it was over 500 pages of red herrings and disappointment. It wasn’t necessarily bad, but it wasn’t necessarily good either.

So when I saw that she was coming out with a new book – The Shadow Land – I was intrigued and decided to give the author another try. The Shadow Land is about Alexandra Boyd and her journey to Bulgaria to cope with the death of her brother; she planned on travelling for several weeks and then teaching English in Sofia. However, on her first day in Sofia, she found she had accidentally kept one of the bags of a family she was helping into a taxi: a bag containing the ashes of Stoyan Lazarov. On her journey to return this treasured urn, she unfurls a secret about this man that might not only destroy his family, but her as well.

I must say that this was an overall enjoyable read, albeit a little fluffy.

My favorite part of the book was the language. Kostova’s ability to describe the Bulgarian towns and landscapes was beautiful. It was almost like I was travelling through this pale green little Eastern European country, a place where I have never been, along with Alexandra and Bobby and Stoyon. The towns and villages, the houses, the rolling landscapes, all set the mood for the plot and provided an apt stage for the characters to traverse and discover the mysteries of the country as well as of the Lazarov family.

I would be lying if I said this book was perfect. Although lovely, there were some elements missing that prevented it from living up to its full potential. Unfortunately, both the plot and the characters themselves fell a little short of the mark.

The plot itself was slow, often languid – which, while apt for describing the country itself, was at odds with the sense of urgency the author concurrently tried to convey. This made the book trod on a bit longer than necessary and also obscured some of the desire to uncover the mystery.

The characters as well were slightly underdeveloped and not quite believable in their thoughts and actions. I wasn’t quite convinced of the sincerity of Alexandra’s character; she was innocent and willing to help complete strangers in a strange country, but her pining over a brief encounter with a man who she knew little to nothing about made the emotional impact of her character less and made any feelings of sympathy I might have felt for her less-readily-accessible.

I’m sure a lot had to do with the differences in culture between America and Bulgaria: where in the latter people are more likely to offer their homes to strangers and go out of their way to help them, while in the former, this is not as likely to occur, at least not to the same extent as in Bulgaria. Even with this openness and willingness to help, I still didn’t quite find it believable that the Lazarov family would openly share their family story – especially as they feared they were in danger – so willingly to strangers.

The ending of The Shadow Land was also a bit disappointing, a similar feeling I felt after reading The Swan Thieves. Even though sometimes the plot felt a bit sparse, there was a definite undercurrent of increasing tension. Who was Stoyon Lazarov? Why were the Lazarov family being pursued, and by whom? What secret might their deceased patriarch have known that could potentially cause the family so much danger?

But for all of the buildup, we are rewarded only fleetingly. Once we get to the climax, to the point where we finally get our questions answered, it was just over. A few tense minutes of action for the characters, then denouement. Tying up loose ends. Fin.

Maybe I’m rating this book higher than I should with a full four-star rating. It’s entirely plausible. The book deserves at least three stars, maybe three-and-a-half, but hell I’m rounding up to a full four stars because (1) it was better than The Swan Thieves, though I had a similar complaint about both books, (2) it held my attention and I actually wanted to read it to find out what happened, (3) I was sufficiently shocked at the big reveal (though I am notoriously bad at seeing these things from far away – I’m a sucker for a good, ole’ red herring), and (4) because underneath the slow-moving plot and often unbelievable characters was the story of a beautiful country with a turbid history.

Thank you to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for an advanced copy of this eBook in exchange for an honest and unbiased review!


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