The Book of Air and Shadows is a
veritable joy. A literary thriller (quite literally) which is
smart enough to get the mental cogs whirring, with a depth of
characterization rare in a thriller but with an action quotient
more than high enough to keep one up late into the night.
Much of the tale is narrated by intellectual property lawyer Jake Mishkin, who we meet in the opening pages as he waits alone at a friend's property, well off the beaten track, for the bad guys to catch up with him. Considering that this is a book about books and our rambling narrator is a lawyer specializing in a somewhat dry and usually far from dangerous field, it is a happy moment for the reader to discover that Jake is a weight-lifter good enough to have competed in the Olympics, and that his father is a well-connected mob accountant currently living outside the reach of the American legal system. This information signals early on that The Book of Air and Shadows is going to be a tale with both brains and action!
The story centers on the discovery of letters that might lead to a new play by William Shakespeare, written in his own hand. The clues to locate the missing play lie in the 17th century letters of one Richard Bracegirdle, which are found bound into the covers of a set of damaged books. The letters themselves are potentially priceless as they appear to contain contemporary references to Shakespeare (about whom so little is known that some modern-day scholars question whether he existed at all or was simply an elaborate pseudonym); but the ultimate prize is the play itself which, if found and proved genuine, would be worth a very large fortune; because there are virtually no examples of Shakespeare's writing in existence - only a half dozen questionable signatures on various legal documents, not even a sonnet in his own writing, let alone a complete play.
The only catch is that, other than a couple of letters written by Bracegirdle to his wife as he lies dying from wounds inflicted during a English Civil War battle, the rest of his correspondence is encrypted in a deviously difficult code.
From this promising premise, Gruber weaves an often humorous tale of conspiracy and mayhem containing every possible element we could wish to see in a pulse-pounding thriller - double-crossing Russian and Jewish mobs, a former thug turned Jesuit Priest, disgraced professors, kidnappings, lawyers getting beaten up, booze and sex, international models, canny antiquarian book dealers, armed heavies in all shapes and sizes, gun fights and car chases. There's even a religious conspiracy; but for once it's not the Catholics who are conspiring but the Puritans, and the conspiracy is 400 year old.
The majority of reviewers think very positively of The Book of Air and Shadows. One dissenting voice comes from the reviewer for Library Journal who finds the Jacobean-style letters that intersperse the main storyline make for slow reading, and feels that Gruber is too heavy on family drama and introspection. Ironically, these are the very elements that cause other reviewers to sing with praise.
Bracegirdle's letters, written in the style of the Jacobean period, might initially appear to be a challenging read. However, his vocabulary is conveniently limited to words that are clearly recognizable to a modern-day reader, and the letters are "reproduced" in a modern typeface; so they are actually very easy to follow. If you can read this sentence with ease you'll have no problem making sense of the letters: "We crost the seas with fayre windes until 23rd July when the skye came all over black as night & commense a great wind."
What sets The Book of Air and Shadows substantially above the mass of "secret-cipher" novels that have been spawned in the wake of The Da Vinci Code are Gruber's ability to juggle multiple threads and concepts with aplomb, and the depth of characterization. The main characters are living and breathing individuals who are growing and learning as the story progresses; even the secondary players are far more than simple props to keep the story going, and a handful are sufficiently intriguing that they could stand alone as central characters in another novel.
This review was originally published in April 2007, and has been updated for the March 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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