Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (2013)

 

Image result for golem and the jinni

Review #71

In the winter of 1899 two strange creatures find themselves on the streets of New York City. Chava is a golem fashioned out of clay, alone and without direction following the death of her master. Ahmad is a jinni who finds himself free from his lamp after more than one thousand years of confinement. These two beings attempt to assimilate into the teeming streets of New York, and end up forging an unlikely friendship.

This novel was very different from what I expected. Judging from the title alone, I had thought it would be a story about a creature from Jewish mythology falling in love with one from Muslim legend. And in a way it is, except that the humans who take in the jinn and help him to find his way are Maronite Christians who have fled to America to seek out better fortunes. Also, rather than a love story The Golem and the Jinni is a surprisingly sweet story of two unique individuals who find in each other a kindred spirit.

The friendship that emerges between the Golem and the Jinni is one of opposites. She is a creature formed of clay that was brought to life by a heretical rabbi. He is an ancient spirit of fire that spent his former days riding the winds of the Syrian desert. She is only weeks old at the time of their first encounter, uncertainly navigating the busy streets of New York and living in terror of discovery. He is a thousands of years old, possessing the confidence and arrogance that accompanies a creature of great power. Yet they find themselves united by their otherness and their loneliness.

The story is centered around Chava and Ahmad, but they are surrounded by a wonderfully diverse cast of human characters. Author Helen Wecker captures the immigrant experience through the eyes of the bakers, smiths, and salesmen who populated the various ethnic neighborhoods of New York at the time. The people who came to the United States during this time period were either running from something or running to something, and the spirit and determination of their combined experience shines through this novel.

The Golem and the Jinni is a big overlong and could have used a little trimming around the edges, but ultimately I enjoyed it. I definitely felt transported back to Wecker’s chaotic and diverse depiction of 19th century New York. It’s really interesting to think of Central Park being used as a grazing pasture for sheep.

My rating: 4/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Invasion (The Call #2) by Peadar O’Guilin (2018)

Image result for peadar o'guilin the invasion

Review #54

Warning: Contains spoilers for Peadar O’Guilin’s The Call.

Shortly after the life-altering events of The Call, Anto and Nessa are looking forward to relaxing away from the survival school and beginning their lives together. Nessa is on the bus to meet Anto when she is abruptly arrested and accused of collaborating with the Sidhe. If found guilty, her punishment will be eternal exile back to the nightmare of the Grey Lands. Meanwhile, Anto tries to search for Nessa but finds himself fighting alongside a group of soldiers as they desperately try to fend off attacks by the Sidhe and their legions of mutilated monsters.

I read and reviewed The Call a few months ago, and I really enjoyed it. Much like vampires have been defanged and werewolves declawed in their modern interpretations, so have the Fae been stripped of the mischief and malice that made them a force to be feared in ancient Ireland. A native of County Kildare, Peadar O’Guilin restores the “fairy folk” to their proper place as cruel and mysterious beings who were banished by the kings of Ireland to a bleak and desolate world. I felt that the first novel did an excellent job of establishing a world where the Sidhe have found a way to drag children into their realm to torture and twist them into living weapons. It was an unsettling and suspenseful novel that made me eager to learn more about Irish mythology.

The Invasion picks up shortly after the events of The Call, as Nessa and Anto try to adjust to a world that has left them very changed. Anto finds that his arm, mutated by the Sidhe, seems to have a mind of its own that is bent towards violence. Nessa’s new control over fire lands her in hot water when she is accused of treason by the corrupt remnants of the Irish government. Many new characters are introduced, but sadly they are not given a lot to do. The Professor, for example is said to be a convicted murderer who has been given reprieve due to her expertise on the Sidhe. I would like to have spent more time fleshing out her backstory, but she is only given a few short chapters. A few of the supporting characters from The Call make an appearance, but none make a terribly strong impression.

If The Call was about setting up a convincing world and introducing the people in it, then The Invasion is more about action. Nessa and Anto aren’t really given the opportunity to grow as individuals, which I had been looking forward to once they were away from the dangers of the survival school. The various battles and engagements depicted in this novel are lopsided. A story like this is only as compelling as its villain, and here the Sidhe fall strangely flat. Seen as a large and blurred army, their individual menace has been diminished.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy the second installment of O’Guilin’s series as much as the first. It had some really interesting aspects, but it lacked the suspense and sense of dread that the Grey Lands delivered the first time around.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The Invasion here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)

Image result for circe madeline miller

Review #47

‘Odysseus then you are, o great contender,
of whom the glittering god with the golden wand
spoke to me ever, and foretold
the black swift ship would carry you from Troy.
Put up your weapon in the sheath. We two
shall mingle and make love upon our bed.
So mutual trust may come of play and love.

Homer’s Odyssey Book 10, lines 371-77

Circe is one of the lesser known goddesses of the Greek pantheon. The daughter of the Titan Helios and a water nymph, she is best known for her part in aiding Odysseus on his journey back to Ithaca following the Trojan War. Author Madeline Miller envisions the life of an immortal who has been condemned to a life of banishment and loneliness after daring to defy her father and choosing to live her life free from the demands of divinity.

Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, made my list of the favorite books that I read in 2017. There, she took a few small passages from Homer’s Iliad and turned it into a beautifully written novel about love versus honor. With Circe, Madeline returns to the world of ancient Greece and delves into the history and life of a goddess who, in the words of one character “hates her own divinity”.

Circe is born in the hallowed hall of her father, the Titan Helios who draws his golden chariot across the sky to bring the day. She strives to be an obedient daughter in order to win the affection of her self-absorbed father and her vain mother, the sea nymph Perse. Belittled as the least of his many children, Circe eventually discovers a mystical plant which can change the form of others, and uses it with disastrous results. As punishment, she is banished by Zeus to the lonely island of Aiaia (sometimes spelled Aeaea), condemned to live out the rest of her days in isolation.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Madeline Miller’s is the way she takes a relatively throwaway character from antiquity and fleshes them out into a three dimensional person with hopes and goals. In the legend of Odysseus, the story of Circe is minimal, with far larger sections devoted to the slaying of the Cyclops and the seductive song of the sirens. Since the reader is already prepared for his arrival, we eagerly await the moment when Odysseus lands on the shores of Circe’s island. The fact that he is depicted here in quite a different manner as in Homer’s great epic is a delight. I for one always felt Odysseus to be a bit too perfect, he lacked the weaknesses of some of his fellow Greek heroes. Here he is shown as a man who has lost his moral center and is now desperate to return to Ithaca no matter what the cost to his crew.

But this is not the story of Odysseus, this is the story of a sorceress. Circe is an empowering heroine because her humanity shines through despite her immortal status. She yearns for love ,and acceptance, and occasionally bestows her affection on those unworthy of her. She finds a purpose in a world that has ostracized her, and seeks out happiness in whatever circumstances she is given.

For thousands of years the Greek pantheon has held a special place in our collective imaginations, in part because it’s denizens are so wonderfully and terribly human. They lie, cheat, steal, and meddle in the affairs of mortals and non-mortals alike. Madeline Miller weaves Circe’s tale together with the stories of the great Greek heroes. Making an appearance are such celebrated characters as the Minotaur, Daedalus, Scylla, and Ariadne. Even Jason (of the Argonauts) makes a cameo. Miller uses all these interesting and ultimately fallible characters to create a solid world behind the familiar myths.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Circe here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

P.S. If you are not terribly familiar with the convoluted chaos that is the Greek pantheon, it might help to have a flow chart available while you are reading Circe. Most people are reasonably well acquainted with the Olympians, but how many have ever heard of Glaucus?

Happy reading everyone!