The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker
Wecker returns to historical New York with her beloved characters Ahmad and Chava in this sequel to 2013's The Golem and the Jinni.
Spanning the tumultuous years from the turn of the twentieth century to the beginning of World War I, The Hidden Palace follows these lives and others as they collide and interleave. Can Chava and Ahmad find their places in the human world while remaining true to each other? Or will their opposing natures and desires eventually tear them apart—especially once they encounter, thrillingly, other beings like themselves?
I actually heard about The Hidden Palace before I realized that it was a sequel to another book when it appeared on a list talking about exciting Summer book releases. I was immediately intrigued by the concept of blending Jewish and Arab mythology. Wecker really created a very masterful story with The Golem and the Jinni (you can check out my full review here.) I was curious to see what Hidden Palace had to offer since the story seemed to come to a natural conclusion at the end of Golem and Jinni.
Unfortunately, I did not find The Hidden Palace to be quite as all encompassing and engaging as its predecessor. Let's start by talking about what worked for me as I was reading this one. First, it is very clear that Wecker did an incredible amount of research to bring not only pre-World War I Manhattan to life, but the rest of the world as well. You can hear the busy streets of Manhattan and feel the wind of the desert air of Syria. It's so well done and so immersive when she is describing the locales that surround the characters.
Second, I really appreciated that this sequel easily could act as a standalone if you were not aware of the first book or it had been a long time since you read the first one. Wecker seamlessly drops bread crumbs to remind you of the major plot points, but it is never in a way that feels forced. Honestly, there are a lot of authors who could take a lesson in how to effectively remind the audience of what happened in the past.
One of the things that I really liked about the first book is that the story was primarily told through Ahmad and Chava. There were occasions where another character was your view, but not a significant portion of the book. Whereas in The Hidden Palace, we follow several other side characters from the first book as they become main characters in this one. The story just didn't feel like it had enough depth to really support adding these views. Additionally, it lacked a clear big bad. I'm still not exactly sure what I spent over 400 pages on when it comes to the plot. It basically felt like Wecker wanted to stick her magical characters into big real world events without any real point. Seriously, we see the character involved in what feels like every memorable headline of the early twentieth century - The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the sinking of the Titanic, and a random cameo by the man who would later be known as Lawrence of Arabia. I just kept wondering what we were really doing here a lot of the time.
Bottom line here, I don't really think that a sequel was necessary in this series. Especially not one that doesn't actually really have something moving it forward beyond Chava and Ahmad discovering the human aspects of their natures. It was a beautifully told story that only needed revisiting for a really strong idea. I would compare it to HBOs adaptation of Big Little Lies, it started as a one-off mini series that became widely adored so they thought to themselves, let's revisit these characters. Wonderful characters can only take you so far when the plot isn't really there.
I will note that I seem to be in the minority on my feelings here. If you loved the first book, then you will likely love the second. I simply wasn't totally drawn in, but its still beautifully written and I think many people will enjoy it.
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