Book review: The Library of Shadows by Mikkel Birkegaard, translated by Tiina Nunnally

Library shadows The Library of Shadows

By Mikkel Birkegaard, translated by Tiina Nunnally

THE LIBRARY OF SHADOWS, a best-seller in Denmark, starts out promisingly when Jon, a young lawyer, defends his friend Mehmet against a charge of receiving stolen goods. Mehmet is an IT specialist but, due to racial prejudice, he can’t get a job in Copenhagen, so to make a living he spends his time doing competitions – which he usually wins because of his clever computer programming. The police are suspicious of Mehmet because his apartment is stacked with fridges, dishwashers, TVs and other booty – even packets of nappies – all of which come in useful as currency for various services. The relationship between Jon and Mehmet is nicely told, with neat touches of humour in the face of adversity.

However, the story rapidly shifts a gear, taking us to Luca Campbelli’s rather special antiquarian bookshop. Luca, the elderly owner, has just returned from a buying trip when he suddenly and mysteriously dies. It turns out that not only was the old man’s death no accident, but he was Jon’s estranged father. The two have not had any contact for 20 years, ever since Jon’s mother died under equally mysterious circumstances and his father shortly afterwards rejected him.

Soon enough after the old man's death, Luca’s two secretive bookshop assistants reveal to the young man that there is magic afoot – some people have a special ability to “transmit” the thoughts and emotions described in a book while reading aloud; and others are “receivers” – particularly susceptible to these thought waves. The author spends some time describing the detailed characteristics of these two secret groups, called Lectors (not after Hannibal, I hope), how their skills can be used beneficially or negatively, and how it has come about that the two factions have been at war for generations. 

Jon is unwillingly forced to join the fray when the shop is firebombed. Romance ensues, there is a big-business criminal mastermind, plenty of drama and a historical mystery leading back to the library of Alexandria. Putting it as kindly as I can, characterisation isn’t a strong point in this narrative. 

If you like this genre, then THE LIBRARY OF SHADOWS is fast-paced, exciting and readable, if a somewhat formulaic mixture of Harry Potter, Indiana Jones and Da Vinci Code-type themes. I am afraid this type of escapism isn’t my cup of tea – and this is no fault of the excellent translation by Tiina Nunnally – I prefer novels that don’t involve magic and the supernatural.

Other reviews of this book can be found at:

Fantasy Book Critic

Suite 101.com

SkandLit (review in brief)

and:

Danish Literary Magazine: author profile and about Over My Dead Body, the author's second novel.

[I read a publisher's proof copy of this book.]

7 thoughts on “Book review: The Library of Shadows by Mikkel Birkegaard, translated by Tiina Nunnally

  1. A best-seller perhaps, but I have not seen it in my local library, and I have just checked the homepage of the Danish librarians. ´Sheer entertainment´ without ´literary nerve´ they call it, and when librarians are as outspoken as that, the book is hardly my taste😀

  2. No, not one I would personally recommend, Dorte. I far more enjoyed The Woman from Bratislava, by “Serbian Dane” author Lief Davidsen. My review of that book will be out in the next few weeks at Euro Crime, I think. Rather more rooted in reality. I did not realise The Library of Shadows was going to be fantasy until I had started reading it, and felt duty-bound to finish it, but certainly not my cup of tea. OK for those who like that kind of thing!

  3. What a strange mixture indeed – thanks for taking one for the team on this as it doesn’t sound like my kind of thing either. Even as a kid I was never really into fantasy. I’ve never finished LOTR though I did actually make my way through the Harry Potter series but only because my god daughter asked me to read them with her and I found it impossible to say no to her. It is Mother’s Day here this weekend and ALL the bookstores are pushing ‘paranormal romance’ titles to buy for one’s mother because all women like that sort of thing right? Mine would give me ‘the look’ if I even dared suggest it (at 83 she is still quite capable of withering a person with a single look).

  4. Oh Bernadette, I scream in sympathy! We had mothers’ day a few weeks ago and it was all pink frilly wishy-washy rubbish….maybe the UK will evolve into “paranormal romance” in about 30 years as what some marketing idiots think “mothers” like to read.
    I liked Harry Potter very much because it is totally logical and the plotting is awesome. LOTR, OK but rather dated now. Some aspects (not all by any means) of the films were better, eg Gandalf and the Balrog. But Library of Shadows falls into the trap of most of these books – constantly inventing what seem like ad hoc, out-of-the-hat explanations (that make no sense and rely on “magic”) for things – not good. Pity, though, as the initial Mehment/Jon/police/racism theme was very well done – the author should have stuck to that.
    I decided to read it, btw, partly because Tiina Nunnally translated it and she’s one of my favourite translators; and because it was purportedly about books/booshops/libraries (not, as it turned out, in any sense that I would mean it!).

  5. Glad that you reviewed this book, sounded enticing until I read “magic” and “the supernatural.” Not my cup of tea either, not even when a child or teen first discovering the thrills of Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe. Reality is enough to contend with.
    Can’t wait for your review of Davidsen’s book, sounds good already.
    Oh, really? Mothers like “paranormal romance”? My mother would have thought these books were on another planet, she who barely read fiction, but read nonfiction on history, politics, art and music and still at 92 1/2, complains that other residents in her assisted living facility don’t read the New York Times every day and watch the news and discuss it!

  6. Sorry for commenting again but it is a letdown that European books take so long to get over here to the other side of the ocean. I keep reading good reviews and no books appear in the library for what seems like a eon.

  7. You are welcome to comment as many times as you like, “k”! I agree it is frustrating that we can have to wait so long for books published in each other’s part of the globe – and in the case of translated fiction, there has often been an even longer wait while the book was translated – it is not unusual when reading one of these to see from the flyleaf that is was originally published 10 years ago.
    And as for “mothers” – they are as varied a group as any other – why someone should assume they all like pink or share the same reading tastes is beyond me.

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