August 10th, 2013


Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

A turn-of-the-century urban fantasy about two very unusual immigrants to New York City.

The Golem and the Jinni

Harper, 2013, 486 pages

Helene Wecker's dazzling debut novel tells the story of two supernatural creatures who appear mysteriously in 1899 New York. Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a strange man who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York Harbor. Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian Desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop.

Struggling to make their way in this strange new place, the Golem and the Jinni try to fit in with their neighbors while masking their true natures. Surrounding them is a community of immigrants: the coffeehouse owner Maryam Faddoul, a pillar of wisdom and support for her Syrian neighbors; the solitary ice cream maker Saleh, a damaged man cursed by tragedy; the kind and caring Rabbi Meyer and his beleaguered nephew, Michael, whose Sheltering House receives newly arrived Jewish men; the adventurous young socialite Sophia Winston; and the enigmatic Joseph Schall, a dangerous man driven by ferocious ambition and esoteric wisdom.

Meeting by chance, the two creatures become unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures, until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful menace will soon bring the Golem and the Jinni together again, threatening their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.

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Verdict: This is the sort of thick, juicy fantasy that should appeal to all fans of thick juicy fantasies and historical fiction alike. Rich in characters and setting details, judicious about using magic as a plot device, not a character, a mystical force that doesn't need to be meticulously systemitized to make sense. The Golem and the Jinni is literary fantasy that doesn't fill its pages with unnecessary side trips into some hidden magical world just to detail other creatures; it spends its time on character development and describing a vivid turn-of-the-century New York populated by immigrants of all kinds. Highly recommended!

While the two books are very different in style, I will also say that if you liked Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, you should definitely put The Golem and Jinni on your TBR list.

My complete list of book reviews.