The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
A golem, a jinni, and their nefarious master play a game of cat and mouse in 1890s Manhattan
Chava, is a golem, a woman made of clay, created by a maniacal and untrustworthy maker in Danzig for a man headed to America to start a new life. After her husband dies aboard the ship, Chava is masterless in the world as she attempts to navigate life in the United States. Taken in by a kindly rabbi, Chava begins her life anew in Manhattan. Ahmad, a jinni, a restless creature of fire, has been trapped in a flask for a thousand years and is unexpectedly released by a Syrian tinsmith in Little Syria of Manhattan. Soon the two creatures encounter one another and find comfort in each other, each recognizing that they are separate from the human world. While their master soon immigrates to continue his ages long quest to conquer death and captures his two lost creatures in a web of his making.
I am going to do my best to keep my reviews to recently published works because that makes the most sense, but I randomly discovered the sequel to this was recently released so I decided to give the book a go. As a history nerd, it really combined all of the things that I love into one book - imaginative takes on myths and a clear glimpse into the past by way of the Gilded Age Manhattan.
I really enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni a lot, it is a distinctly different take on fantasy, though readers may find some comparison to Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus with its decadent writing and use of magical realism. The depictions of Manhattan are stellar and almost second to none; Wecker brings both the Jewish quarter and Little Syria to life. You can smell the challahs of the bakery where Chava works and feel the changing metal shapes as Ahmad crafts new items. Delicious is really the only word to describe Wecker's writing.
That being said, this book starts slow, the plot is a bit dense, and there are certain spaces that feel overly long. None of that is to say that its not absolutely enjoyable in those spots because it is, but it felt worth noting because this is a long fantasy book so you want to be aware of what you are potentially getting into. I would absolutely love to see this book come to life on tv because there is such a richness to the story.
"All of us are lonely at some point or another, no matter how many people surround us. And then, we meet someone who seems to understand. She smiles, and for a moment the loneliness disappears." The Golem and the Jinni
What makes this book particularly special is the beautiful blending of Arab and Jewish folklore which is not something that I think that I have ever encountered. If you've studied the Abrahamic religions at all, there is a certain level of similarity between the belief systems that shape their folklore and while the languages employed are different there are cultural similarities as well. It was amazing to see these two come together to highlight some of the differences, but really Wecker leans into highlighting the similar communities.
Absolutely magical, if somewhat slow, read that any urban fantasy and historical fiction lover is sure to appreciate. Keep an eye out for my upcoming review on the sequel, The Hidden Palace which is available now at booksellers.
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