Thursday, April 30, 2015

Book review: Helene Wecker, "The Golem And The Jinni"

This was one enjoyable urban fantasy book. It was different from other novels I've read in this genre, though admittedly I haven't read that many, because I got disappointed with the genre soon. There is no Mary Sue heroine here that every werewolf falls in love with; this one has truly interesting, unique characters, rather than the usual assortment of werevolves and vampires.

The title character, a golem, was made by a European Jewish wizard for a man who wanted a custom-made wife; the man took her on a trip to the US, but died along the way. She disembarked in New York not knowing a single soul there, but was befriended by a kind, old rabbi, who quickly guessed who she is. Luckily he is the only human she ever encounters who can see that she is made of clay. Outwardly she is indistinguishable from a human woman.

The jinni, on the other hand, escaped from an ancient flask, accidentally opened by a metalworker in the Little Syria neighborhood of New York. He was trapped in a human form by a sorcerer many centuries ago in a Bedouin desert. While the Golem, who is made of Earth, is an excellent baker, the Jinni, who embodies the fire element, is talented at metalworking. They make their lives in the new country, their paths eventually cross, and they find an unlikely (or maybe likely?) friend in one another, as the only other supernatural creature each has ever met. They are the only ones who can understand what it's like to live in a human shape with all its restrictions, and to have to pass for a human every day. This involves not letting anyone catch on that you don't eat, sleep, breathe, or have a heartbeat.

As much as they try to blend into the society, they naturally create messes in their wake, simply because they are not human beings, and some things they do have unexpected consequences to humans. The Golem cares about it much more than Jinni does, who, at least at first, doesn't give a thought to the broken human lives he leaves in his wake (mostly women, for the handsome Jinni is like catnip for them). The Golem is the opposite: since she was created to serve, she can't help but sense the humans' needs, and feels irresistible urge to help them. The Golem's concern for others rubs off on the Jinni, who, after spending time with her, starts viewing his carefree actions in a different light.

But both of them are bound to the powerful forces who made them what they were, and the past comes looking for them. When that happens, ancient wizardry starts to play out in 19th century New York. To avoid spoilers, some tensions get resolved, and some don't, but it seems that the stage gets set for a sequel.

This book alternates between exotic/mystical and cozily mundane settings: the Golem works at a bakery, and the book has a good number of delightful scenes involving challah, strudel, fresh-baked bread, and so on. They are interspersed with scenes of Middle-Eastern and cabalistic magic. The threads of present and past are woven together beautifully, and suspense arises on two levels -- past and present; while the reader suspects that they must be related, you can't easily predict how it will all come together.

Secondary and tertiary characters truly come to life. Each of them is distinct. The characters that seem at first spoiled or airheaded, turn out to have depth. Sometimes the book teeters too far into the realm of "characters who didn't believe in the existence of paranormal suddenly become believers", but there is only a little of that. The scenes set in the ancient Bedouin desert centuries or millennia ago don't seem as strong as the scenes set in the 19th century New York; I'm not sure why, but maybe because they rely too much on clicheed Middle-Eastern setting, whereas the New York setting is detailed and authentic? Then again, this book is based on Middle-Eastern fairytale tropes, so that would be hard to avoid.

In any case, the result is quite original.