The Book of Air and Shadows, by Michael Gruber

by Derwood Hunsdale-Talbot on October 10, 2008

The Perfect Airplane Book

When faced with a thirteen hour transatlantic flight in the dead of night from Seattle to London, Bohemian Bookworm only had one question: What book do I bring?

The perfect airplane book is a heady challenge. It has it’s work cut out for it, you could say. Or you could say it needs the supernatural literary prowess to transcend the Styrofoam chicken, the insatiable dinging, that weird suffocating airplane smell, and the slobbering passenger who has fallen asleep on your shoulder. A tall order, and may I just say, “The Book of Air and Shadows” by Michael Gruber delivered on all counts. It was pretty much magical and….I have to use the inevitable pun: the airplane ride literally flew by!

“Tap-tapping the keys and out come the words on this little screen, and who will read them I hardly know.”

So begins the incredibly-written The Book of Air and Shadows. The premise is a Da Vinci Code-style mystery built around a missing Shakespeare manuscript being discovered (omg, can you imagine!?), and the many ruthless people who will do anything to get their hands on it. All the great literary elements are in place. A fire in a bookshop. A mysterious cipher (yes, a cipher) . Bizarre, nuanced sex. A whirlwind treasure hunt through England, New York, and Switzerland (not to mention the 17th century and the present day) No doubt, the plot alone is an English major’s aphrodisiac, but something so fantastical could easily feel farcical. Not so in The Book of Air and Shadows.

Instead, Gruber sets up a riveting literary labyrinth of intersecting relationships and kindred desperation that gets pulled tighter and tighter as the storyline progresses. It is no small testament to Gruber’s story writing genius that the story travels via three alternating story lines, each equally interesting and punctuated by fist-clenching cliffhangers. Even the use of Jacobean English in the storyline of the alleged manuscript accomplice Richard Bracegirdle only takes a second to adjust to before you fall right into this gripping storyline. Wrought with perfectly-researched historical elements, seafaring adventures, and a stint in the Tower Of London, this dark, brilliant plot perfectly compliments the modern day “many cats-one million+ dollars manuscript mouse” game that is going on in the present day.

Stylistically, “The Book of Air and Shadows” combines the grittiness of Sin City with the complex characters of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Indeed, only a brilliant writer like Gruber could take the protagonist Jake Mishkin’s brother Paul’s conversion from mob boss to priest and make it feel warm and real, not heavy-handed. The women are a bit more stereotypical in the comic-book fashion, more “angels” and “devils,” but for this narrative, an adventure tale at the core, that works.

While I was able to guess the ending a little before, there were enough missing pieces to keep me hooked until the end. The climax is so stunning and action-packed, you marvel all over again at what a true badass Jack Mishkin is. I mean, an intellectual property lawyer who was a weight-lifting Olympiad? Does it get any cooler than that?

The only minor quibble I have is that the epilogue could have had a few more Easter Eggs. There were a few characters ( Crosetti’s awesome mother, Oliver, the deceased’s bereaved gay lover) whose fates I would have liked to hear. Hopefully, Gruber is just holding back for the sequel.

To add my own final note, I will also mention that with its antiquarian, book-binding emphasis, this is very much a book for book-lovers. Those who love the physicality of books, those who don’t own Kindles, and never loved the library. In fact, an appropriate taglineĀ  for this tome might be “If you love vellum, you’ve love this.” But all this just adds to the book’s quirky charms.

All in all, this is a brilliant book. The historical elements are enlightening, the characters are charming, and the plot brings all the stealth and glee of a literary “Capture the Flag” game. Keeps you hooked from “Please Fasten Your Seatbelts” to “Flight Attendants Please Prepare for Landing.” Buy it for a boarding pass to literary bliss.

On the bookalicious scale: 5- Devour. A complete feast for your soul.

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