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When evaluating a book, or indeed any sort of artistic expression, the first and often unconscious step is establishing the thresholds or criteria against which it should be fairly judged. Not all plays ought be held against the standard of Shakespeare, nor all novels Dostoevsky. From the moment you first pick up a book, thoughtfully heft its weight in your hand, absorb the cover art and typeface, and casually skim the publisher blurbs and reviewer call-quotes, you begin a process of shaping expectations. These first impressions are typically completed -- occasionally refuted, but certainly concluded -- as you slowly begin picking your way through the opening sentence, paragraph, and page.By the end of the first chapter, the experienced reader will have established a ready model of the audience for whom this book was intended, the literary tradition it builds from and chooses to extend, the ancient themes it has picked up and will shortly re-tell with variations anew. Consciously or otherwise, the reader has already begun cross-referencing an index of comparison points: other books with similar style, comparable diction, analogous theme, congruent historical or geographical setting, parallel plot, etc. These will become the benchmarks against which this new entry will be measured -- and the water mark will be high, for indeed novel comes from the Latin novus or new, and readers will expect recent entries to build upon and therefore plausibly surpass the achievements of those who have gone before; mere regurgitation or mimicry merit little praise.And therein lies my problem with The Library of Shadows, the latest submission in the subgenre of supernatural literary thriller. The author dearly wishes to be placed on a shelf alongside recent bestsellers such as The Club Dumas, The Dante Club, Elizabeth Kostovas The Historian, and even masters such as Umberto Eco. This categorization is not subjective on my part: Arturo Perez-Reverte is mentioned by name in the text, as is The Name of the Rose, and special attention is given to a reading of The Divine Comedy. These unsubtle allusions could be amusingly self-referential in a genuine genre entry, but come across as almost embarrassingly pleading in a novel of this calibre.For the fact is that Library does not measure up to the standards it self-selects and so desperately echos. Its fantastic suppositions beggar belief, lacking even the internal logic so critical to establishing suspension-of-disbelief and effective empathy between reader and text. The whodunnit aspect of the mystery, the morality play of motivations, as well as the supernatural element which sets the plot in motion, are all presented with such clumsy cliches that I found myself wondering if this was a book written for children. Indeed, with one or two snips of the editors scissors, this could make excellent juvenile fiction, an easy on-ramp to spark interest in better books featuring similar themes: dark and dank libraries filled with forgotten folios, musty old tomes of legend and lore whose cryptic secrets spell ecstasy or horror for the unwary reader.Sadly, this book is unlikely to be ever placed in those hallowed back-rooms, held behind counter and glass for curious cognoscente or discerning dilettante; I fear it is bound to remain ever caged in the sunlit paperback racks fronting friendly High Street shops. At best, it may provide an early map, a hint to precocious young readers that books do exist which can carry the recondite connoisseur down circuitous paths to more vivid visions and rewarding resolutions, when the time is right.Today, two stars; for too little, too late.
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