Monday, March 11, 2013

Review: City of Shadows by Ariana Franklin

Title: City of Shadows
Author: Ariana Franklin
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Harper Collins
Published: 2006
Pages: 422

Rating: 6 out of 10

In 1922 Berlin, an impoverished Russian prince, exiled from his country after the Revolution, hires Esther Solomonova, a young Jewish woman with a mysteriously scarred face. He reveals a daring plot to her: they will rescue a girl named Anna from a mental asylum, and pass her off to the world as the lost Duchess Anastasia Romanov. But with Anna living in her apartment, it doesn't take Esther long to realize that everyone around the strange girl is being assassinated. Who is Anna Anderson?

I really enjoyed Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death, and the premise of this one sounded even better. Fraud and counterfeit princesses and 1920's identity theft? I just love Franklin's stories.

I liked the book, but I didn't love it. I never felt that I got to know the characters very well, and in the middle of the book, I just didn't feel interested in what was going on.
The little sketches we are given of the characters make them sound fascinating - a penniless prince, a stripper, a Jewish woman who is mysteriously disfigured, a young mental hospital patient posing as royalty... But they were never really filled out, and the excellent intrigue that the book presents us in the beginning had more potential it could have lived up to, in my opinion.

My favorite character was Anna Anderson, who was an actual person that attempted to convince the world she was Anastasia. For a long time, she succeeded, until DNA testing decades later allowed us to determine that she had no relation to the Romanov family.
Here, Anna is fascinating of course, but I so wish she had been focused on more strongly. At the peak of her sham, when she is beginning to mix in high society and interact with her supposed 'royal relatives,' she mostly slips out of the story and fades into the background. What!

I love Franklin's ability to create an atmosphere, and the feel to this book is decidedly dark and brooding. Even though it is not all that big of a plot point, the rising hostility toward Judaism is mentioned quite a lot, and we see things getting worse and worse for the Jews as time progresses. Hitler is also mentioned passingly a few times, and one of the main characters even appears to support him, or at least approve of him from a political standpoint.

This foreshadowing of what we know is to happen later fits perfectly with the overall tension to the story - we know that the mystery killer is still out there, somewhere, watching, waiting, and plotting. The fact that we know nothing about him, and that the most detailed description we are given is of a silhouette, makes him seem all the more unearthly and frightening. We do not know who he is, or even his motives. All we know is that he appears in the night, and people are found dead the next day.
The author is very good at capturing the emotion of fear, and creating suspense and an ominous mood. The characters are afflicted by all of these troubling thoughts, passing them on to the reader. They are always looking over their shoulders, and at one point a man thinks quite randomly to himself "The killer is near. He's coming toward me."
In a historical world that lacks actual monsters, this book makes good use of using mind games and mystery to create villains.
While I would never associate this book with the horror genre, the stalker/assassin is very memorable and stands out even though we never get to see much of him.

Some little things that annoyed me would be...
- The characters are always 'grunting.' They grunt out short answers, they grunt at a revelation, they grunt in surprise, they grunt in sorrow... The word was definitely over-used. And besides that, I just don't like that word, for some reason.
- *mild spoilers* A love interest of Esther's is married when he first meets her. Hannelore is perfect for him, the sweet angel of a wife, but Schmidt still finds himself attracted to Esther. I wondered to myself how this would play out, since it wouldn't seem right for anything between Schmidt and Esther to develop. And then, Hannelore is conveniently killed off! Schmidt and Esther are now free to start up their relationship (and they do). It just annoyed me, even though Schmidt did wait a few years. Maybe it was that I predicted it.

Overall, City of Shadows was a mix of good and average. The beginning was good, the middle was un-interesting, and the ending was very good. I felt that it was a satisfying, if somewhat unbelievable, final twist.