Three years after a young American Peace Corps worker goes missing in Bulgaria and is presumed dead, his elderly grandfather arrives in the capital of Sofia, intent on getting to the bottom of the mystery. So begins Valley of Thracians by Ellis Shuman (@EllisShuman), a novel that is equal parts mystery, thriller and travelogue.
Bulgaria becomes a supporting character in this story as the grandfather, Simon Matthews, journeys around the country searching for clues to his grandson Scott’s disappearance. Assisted by Sophia Ivanova, an academic specializing in Thracian culture — before the rise of the Greeks and Romans the Thracians lived in an area spanning parts of modern Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey — Simon does his best to learn more about Scott’s life in Bulgaria, his disappearance and how his wallet and passport came to be discovered at a Black Sea resort hotel.
To say much more would be to spoil the plot, but suffice to say there is more going on here than the disappearance of Scott, whose activities in Bulgaria went beyond his Peace Corps brief of community outreach and teaching English as a second language.
Reading Valley of Thracians, I was taken aback at the realization that it has been going on twenty-five years since Bulgaria broke free of Communist control and started on the path to becoming a democracy. Where did that time go? My knowledge of the country prior to reading this novel was minimal, centering mostly on claims of Bulgarian involvement in the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II.
The author lived in Bulgaria for two years, and Mr. Shuman weaves a wealth of information about the country’s history and culture into the narrative. Additionally, the travels of Simon, Scott and Sophia allow the author the opportunity to showcase many of the country’s historic sites and its natural wonders. For someone like me who enjoys learning something new, this novel is a real gem.
All that learning comes with a small price, however. The pace of the story is languid to begin with, but added to that many of the “lessons” tend to pull the reader out of unfolding scenes. This happens most often in the first and last parts, while the middle section moves along at a good clip even while dealing with multiple timelines.
I enjoyed Valley of Thracians and recommend it. Bulgaria sounds like a wonderful place to visit, with many interesting historic sites to explore as well also mountains and beaches to enjoy. For more of Mr. Shuman’s writing, including book reviews and Bulgarian memories, visit his blog.