“Book Review: Zahara and the Lost Books of Light”
Reviewed by Joelene Pynnonen
Magical realism weaves through this adventurous historical thriller
When the Spanish government opens citizenship applications for Sephardic Jews as reparations for historic wrongs, it opens doors for journalist Alienor Crespo. She’ll be able to cover the topic from her unique perspective and find her way to a fascinating story.
But also, it’s a chance to visit Spain, to discover a branch of her family she never got to meet.
When expectations for her trip run high, her clairvoyant episodes begin to shake loose the truths of her past. And that notary she’s supposed to meet is shot. This is enough to keep her worried, but soon, this fear escalates along with the discovery that she may have been the target. Racial tensions are rising in Spain, and Alienor is in danger of finding herself in the middle of a centuries-old feud that hits closer to home than she could have imagined.
Zahara and the Lost Books of Light is a historical thriller painted along the edges with evocative magic realism. The writing is lushly descriptive, evoking the places and times the narrative explores, and it also weaves in mystery, politics, history, religious philosophy, and romance. There’s something to watch on nearly every page.
From a purely historical perspective, Zahara is a fascinating read. It digs into the religious persecutions of Spain through past centuries, and it’s clear that the author, Joyce Yarrow, deeply understands the issues she explores. The sense of fear that lingers over the pages of this novel is tangible through a stifling atmosphere where characters need to hide in order to escape punishment or death.
The fantasy elements of Zahara are also a pleasant surprise. The entire novel leans heavily toward realism, from character interaction to settings, and the fantastical aspects are handled the same way. Alienor’s clairvoyant visits to her ancestors feel authentic and effective. It’s a great way to connect to Alienor’s journey and to the ones who have come before her.
There are times when Zahara snaps my willing suspension of belief, though. On occasion, something happens that veers so wildly away from reality that it doesn’t feel natural to the story, like when a sixty-plus-year-old man is shot and then carries on with his life as though nothing has happened, or when a character changes their entire belief system in a matter of minutes. These things don’t happen often, but they are still there and head-scratching enough to give me pause.
Zahara and the Lost Books of Light is a wonderful genre-bending adventure that feels faithful to the history and politics that it explores. It’s well worth a shot for those looking to dive into fantastical history.
Publisher: Adelaide Books
Genre: Historical fiction / Magical realism
Print Length: 332 pages
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