A Peace Corps volunteer has gone missing in Bulgaria and everyone assumes he is dead, everyone except his grandfather, who refuses to give up hope. Retired literature professor Simon Matthews launches a desperate search only to be lured into a bizarre quest to retrieve a stolen Thracian artifact—a unique object of immense value others will stop at nothing to recover.
Matthews travels through a Balkan landscape dotted with ancient tombs and fortresses, unaware that his grandson has been confined to an isolated mountain cabin, slowly recovering from a severe head injury. Nothing can be taken at face value, as the woman assisting Matthews in his quest and the nurse caring for his injured grandson may have ulterior motives in helping the two reunite. Even when Matthews succeeds in joining up with his grandson, departure from Bulgaria is only possible if the missing relic can be found.
“Valley of Thracians” is a wonderful book about grandfather Simon travelling to Bulgaria to track down his missing and declared-for-dead grandson Scott. The latter used to work for the Peace Corp in Bulgaria before going missing. With some reason to assume that Scott is still alive Simon starts his own enquiries and with help from some locals he finds indeed new evidence regarding his grandson.
The story is told in four parts and changes perspective throughout. This serves the storyline very well and gives the reader a chance to be more involved in the plot. Starting with Simon’s perspective it is a slow burner, building up only gradually as at first Simon learns little and comes across as stubborn and full of wishful thinking. The writing in the first few chapters includes a lot of interesting background information about Bulgaria and its history, culture and people. Those parts are skilfully woven into the dialogue and make for a great read.
As the storyline moves along we get less of the (well received) tourist information and move swiftly into darker territory of organised crime, smuggling, drugs, corruption and so forth.
As the second voice takes over the narrative the pace picks up and never lets us down again throughout the whole action packed plot until the end of the book.
Well written and full of great characters the book turned out to be a rich and exciting read, with huge expert local and historical knowledge that gives this thriller a great unusual and well chosen backdrop, without taking away the focus from the actual story. It is a rare find to have great suspense and almost educational details combined and work together so well.
Interview with Ellis Shuman:
Q: You know an awful lot about Bulgaria. Can you briefly describe your connection: Why, when and how you got there?
I was working in an international marketing company with headquarters in Tel Aviv when my boss informed me that my position was being relocated for two years to Sofia, Bulgaria. This came as a total surprise to me. I was not as young as most of my colleagues; my wife was studying interior design; our parents were elderly; and our children were in Israel. Yet, we accepted this once-in-a-lifetime challenge, packed up our house, and moved to Bulgaria in January 2009.
Q: In brief, what was the experience like?
Although we had been born in the United States, my wife and I had never lived as adults outside Israel. We also had never lived in a big city. Setting up a home in Sofia was quite a unique experience just for those reasons. But, we had never expected Bulgaria to be such a beautiful country. Alongside getting settled into the daily routines of our jobs, we took advantage of every spare moment to explore Sofia, and all of Bulgaria. On weekends we traveled all over the country. Bulgaria has a bit of everything – mountains, forests, beaches, historical sites, museums, and amazing food. And we enjoyed making many Bulgarian friends. We tried to learn Bulgarian and managed in the language a bit, but most of the time our English was sufficient.
Q: Tell us a little about your blog.
While we were living in Sofia, my wife and I took turns writing about our experiences for a blog called Ellis and Jodie’s Bulgarian Adventure. At the time, there weren’t too many English language blogs telling about life in Bulgaria, and our blog attracted a lot of interest. When we came back to Israel, I continued to write, not only about Bulgaria, but also about life in Israel, as well as book reviews and articles about the craft of writing. This blog, which is entitled Ellis Shuman Writes, is updated regularly.
Q: Have you written any fiction before this book?
My wife and I were founding members of Kibbutz Yahel, in Israel’s southern desert. Although we no longer live on a kibbutz, I have many fond memories of our pioneering days. The kibbutz is no longer the idealistic, communal society that it once was. My short story collection, The Virtual Kibbutz, tells about the changing society of the kibbutz.
Q: When did you have the idea for the plot of your book? Was it always going to be set in Bulgaria or did you ever consider a different location?
In addition to the short stories, I have started quite a number of novels, and some of them became complete manuscripts. All of these novels dealt with life in Israel, and as such, they were very much about me and my family and not completely fictional. There are not too many books in English that feature a story taking place in Bulgaria. In fact, most people don’t know anything at all about Bulgaria. I decided that in order to set my writing apart from others, I needed to write a story about Bulgaria, introducing readers to the country’s culture and history. And in addition, I wanted to write something suspenseful that would keep readers turning the pages.
Q: The book contains a lot of knowledge about the history and culture of Bulgaria. What is the one thing that fascinated you the most?
When people speak about modern Bulgarian history, they refer to the country’s liberation in the 1870s from 500 years of Ottoman rule. But there is a more ancient history as well, one that has left its mark in tombs and relics all over the country. The Thracians ruled this area of the Balkans at the time of the Romans. There was something about this ancient people, which barely left a trace of its language or traditions, which fascinated me. I decided to work in some of Bulgaria’s Thracian history into my plot.
Q: You speak a lot about the Jewish community in Bulgaria. Would you say that the experience of living in Bulgaria for a Jewish family is notably different from other countries, and if so, how?
Not too many people know this, but Bulgaria’s entire Jewish community, some 50,000 people, were saved from the horrors of the Holocaust. And this, despite the fact that Bulgaria sided with the Nazis. While there are many theories why the Jews of Bulgaria were saved, most attribute this rescue to the fact that ordinary Bulgarians were unwilling to let their fellow citizens be deported to the death camps. Today, Bulgaria is a very strong supporter of Israel. Many Bulgarians we met told us that they have an uncle, or a friend, living in Tel Aviv. We felt very safe as Israelis living in Bulgaria.
Q: How westernized is the country by now?
Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, yet it remains one of the poorest countries in the EU. With low wages, unemployment, corruption and lack of basic infrastructure in many places, Bulgaria has a lot of catching up to do. What we enjoyed in Bulgaria was the fact that even though there is a lot of modern construction, fancy shopping malls, and seaside resorts, there is still strong respect for the country’s past. Historical villages preserve their culture, and it’s not unusual to see a shiny Mercedes pass a donkey-drawn carriage on a cobblestone city street.
Q: Did you need to research a lot for the book?
Everywhere we travelled in Bulgaria, we learned about the country. We visited many ethnographic museums, ate in the local restaurants, and enjoyed the historical sites. I guess this was all part of my research, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. After coming back to Israel, I continued to research specific aspects of Bulgaria that would feature in my novel, like remnants of the Thracian language and the silver-work these talented artisans produced. I worked on the book for about two years until I felt that I had achieved a balance between suspense on the one hand, and an introduction to Bulgaria.
Q: How did you edit the book?
There came a point when I realized that I had finished writing, and rewriting my book. I had shown the book to others, incorporated their suggested corrections, but I knew that I needed professional help. I searched on the Internet and found a very talented freelance editor, Amber Jones Barry, and with her help, I improved the manuscript and took it to the next level.
Q: Who did the cover?
It was important for me to have the cover show how stunning Bulgaria is. The photograph was one that I took on one of our many travels in the country, in a valley not far from where many of the Thracian treasures mentioned in the book were discovered. A former colleague of mine, Shiran Waldman, helped me design the cover.
Q: Have you currently any new projects?
As part of my marketing efforts for Valley of Thracians, I have been writing many guest posts about travel to Bulgaria, how incredibly affordable it is. In addition, I have been plotting out and writing my next novel, which will also take place in Bulgaria, but will be completely different from my first book.
Q: Who are your literary influences?
I read a lot of different genres, but I am most excited to read works of Israeli authors that have been translated into English – I speak Hebrew but prefer to read in my mother tongue. I am always searching for books written by Bulgarian authors. The books I enjoy the most are those I just can’t put down, and very often these are thrillers. I wanted readers of my book to feel the same way. Some Bulgarians who have read Valley of Thracians have called it the Bulgarian Da Vinci Code.
Ellis Shuman and his wife, Jodie, lived in Sofia for two years 2009-2010. During that time they maintained a very active blog, Ellis and Jodie’s Bulgarian Adventures, detailing their travels. Ellis is the author of Valley of Thracians, a suspense novel set in Bulgaria. The book is available at Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions. Ellis writes frequently about Bulgaria, Israel, and other interesting things at his blog.
Here are some links: