Fictional Shakespearean History in The Book of Air and Shadows

I appear to have inadvertently started a trend of posting book reviews on Fridays. Just in time to give you ideas of something to read over the weekend! I am thinking only of you, dear reader. Anyway, this week’s book is something I actually read back in March but hadn’t gotten around to writing about: The Book of Air and Shadows, by Michael Gruber. It’s actually a pretty good choice to follow my review of The Historian, because it’s another story where the present and the past end up intertwined and the main characters have to chase their goal through history as well as geography.

Also similarly, this story has multiple but converging storylines. In this case, the adventure starts when one of our main characters, Jake Mishkin, an IP lawyer, is given a document by a Shakespearean scholar from a local college, who came to him for some advice. Mishkin thought the guy’s request was a little odd, but put the document in the law firm’s safe and goes on with his day. Then the scholar turns up tortured to death.

Now we must take a trip slightly into the past and learn a bit more about the documents. The documents were found under the cover of an antique book being taken apart by a bookbinder and her reluctant assistant, the shop computer guy (and aspiring filmmaker), after the book gets water-damaged in a fire. The assistant has to watch the books pages as they dry, and whiles away his time by looking at the padding pages from under the cover. He thinks he spots a name that looks suspiciously like “Shakespeare.” The bookbinder doesn’t believe him, but eventually they take it to the scholar for confirmation. He tells them it is of no importance, buys it from them cheap, then excitedly takes it to Mishkin. Who suddenly finds himself being chased by Russian gangsters.

Fortunately, the filmmaker and the bookbinder had made copies and turned them into an encrypted file. The documents turn out to be letters from a Puritan spy, reporting back to his lord about whether or not Shakespeare, a suspected Papist, is going to take the bait and write a play that will get him convicted of treason. The letters are revealed bit by bit throughout the book, eventually giving clues to the location of this supposedly lost, handwritten, never-performed manuscript of Shakespeare.

As the gangsters grow more and more determined to find the clues and the manuscript, Mishkin, the bookbinder, and the filmmaker eventually all find themselves thrown together in the search. But wait! It turns out the scholar who started it all had already been fooled by a forgery once before, and the forger has confessed to this new stunt as well. Is any of this real? There turn out to be any number of ideal places for a double-cross, or two, or three as the plot unwinds, which keeps the reader, and the characters, guessing pretty much right until the end.

In addition to all the (sometimes over-the-top) suspense, intrigue, and drama, the book is also peppered with facts about antique books, forgery, movie making, and cryptography, not to mention interesting bits of Shakespeare history and controversy. It was, overall, a fun and fairly fast read. I’m looking forward to finally getting to read Gruber’s next book, The Forgery of Venus. I apologize if this review seemed a bit disjointed, but I assure you that all the pieces do fit together in the story. I just don’t want to give too much away, and it’s kind of hard to pick and choose from such an intricately plotted book.

Have you already read it? What did you think?

-posted by Dana


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