Reviewing City of Shadows by Ariana Franklin is a tough one since I nearly gave up on the book entirely several different times within the first 150 pages, but at the end of the day I did end up liking the narrative quite a bit. The only reason at all that I refused to stop reading this book is that the list of books I have started and left unfinished is incredibly short, just Beloved by Toni Morrison and The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs by Irvine Welsh. I have pushed through everything else.
This book was passed off to me by a friend on vacation. The best part of telling people that I’m participating in the Cannonball is that they are likely to hand me books to read. I am totally fine with this. This one arrived in my hand from a friend who said simply “I know you like history so this one should be great for you.” This is probably a fair judgment. The cover lists this as a novel of suspense but I’m rather sure I was not feeling the suspense the author had in mind.
The titular City of Shadows is Berlin starting in the 1920s. Our main protagonist is Esther Solomonova, an exiled Russian Jew who works as a personal secretary to ‘Prince’ Nick, nightclub impresario. ‘Prince’ Nick is not a prince of a guy, working every backhanded trick in the book to keep his three clubs up and running. However, Nick hatches a plan that will fill his bank account and make him a household name. He’s going to train an asylum patient to play the part of Anastasia, heir to the Romanov throne. He cannot do this alone and needs Esther to train her to be a lady and a dancer from one of his clubs Natalya to teach her about the monarchy. There is a big problem – a man is hunting this Anna Anderson and every six weeks someone dies.
The problem I had early on with this work is that no character jumped off the page and made me care. Esther is so downtrodden that she doesn’t even care what happens to her, so why should I? She cares about the characters that kick the bucket but I haven’t known them long enough or well enough to mourn them. It wasn’t until the introduction of Inspector Schmidt, police detective that I started to care about the meat of the story and its characters. I think Franklin is trying to base the suspense of the novel around the ‘is she or isn’t she’ question of Anna/Anastasia while the only suspense for me was would Esther escape Germany before Hitler and the S.S. take over in 1932.
Part Two of the book, the last 170 out of 420 pages is a much tighter crisper narrative than is achieved in the seemingly routine killings of the first 200 pages of the book. We meet a character, six weeks passes, and they are killed. The second half of the book works to unravel the puzzle of who Anna/Anastasia is and who is trying to kill her and has been killing these other people all along.
My recommendation is to read this book if the time period or the Anastasia lore interest you but be prepared to push through until the second half when things pick up.