I wanted to love this. Was shocked when I didn't. I don't have any actual smart criticisms to make. It just never caught me. Maybe I held it up to an...moreI wanted to love this. Was shocked when I didn't. I don't have any actual smart criticisms to make. It just never caught me. Maybe I held it up to an unfair standard, given the author. Hmm...(less)
This book is admirably well plotted, really tight and compelling. The pace is brisk, but well detailed too--and characters are nicely developed. Just generally well written.
I am in LOVE with the setting and the premise. The idea of magic-as-replaced-by-machines, of capitalists as the villains behind the end of "old world" magic. It's brilliant. The way all of these historical characters and institutions (Edison, Houdini, the IWW, Morgan Library, etc) are incorporated and "magicalized" is smart, and never feels arbitrary. And the author appears to have done her research! Reading, I really did feel submerged in the building of the subways, the dingy tenements, Coney Island sideshows, etc.
The biggest issue for me, as I read, was this nagging sense that there was an incongruity to the use of Judaism (and maybe other identities too) as the cultural/religious basis for magic. In the book, some rabbis are understood to be Kabbalists, though mysticism is illegal. As are basic conjuring, spells, hexes, etc. This is INTERESTING. Especially as faith/magic are then replaced by the industrial/capitalistic world. Interesting.
And as a Jewish reader, I liked references to dybbuks. I liked that Yiddish was tossed around.
But there's something off, maybe-- because all the while there was still the "real" Jewish world in the background. Hester Street is the same, and people are running around, trying to get to market before Shabbos. Rabbis are davening in storefront shuls. I couldn't put my finger on what exactly bothered me about this duality of Jewish lives, but something did. Some sense that the author never made clear how these two worlds coexisted. The "magic" world isn't, as it is in Harry Potter, a secret. That would have made more sense to me, Instead, the mothers dashing off to market to make Shabbos before sundown KNOW about the magic world. But it isn't incorporated into their faith or practice, and it doesn't seem to make them question their faith.
I know this may seem like nitpicking, and I certainly wouldn't want this idea to keep a kid from reading and loving this book (which they will). But I wondered how the author understood the theology (not the cultural trappings, but the actual beliefs) of an orthodox Jewish world that happens to be full of magic. Jewish mysticism isn't something most Jews practice (and it wasn't on the LES at the turn of the 20th century either). I couldn't help thinking that if the average frum housewife had experience with magic and mysticism, it might have changed her life.
Also, some points of order bugged me. In the opening scene of the book, much is made about the mother needing to get to market in time for Shabbat, but then she's still out wandering around after sundown. Why she's bothered to rush from work to the market, to buy a whole herring, if she doesn't plan to go home and make dinner in time-- I'm not clear on it. I have a hard time believing that her Rabbi Brother-in-law who lives with her wouldn't be upset about this infraction. But this is minor. It just happened to be on page 3, so set off alarms of Judaism as gimmick. Though other lines, like the one about the MC "memorizing" his bar mitzvah Torah portion, also made me wonder.
I'm also a little confused about when exactly the book is set-- can't be earlier than 1913 because Roosevelt has gone to DC, but the "Pentacle" shirtwaist factory is still in business. The author has used an unusual mix of historical figures/institutions (Edison, Houdini, etc) but then a bunch of people have been reimagined (Astor has become "Astral" and the Morgan Library is the "Morgaunt." Triangle is Pentacle, etc.) I understand that this is a "parallel" world, but I'm not sure why things have to be inconsistant this way. I'm not sure what purpose it served.
Now, I've spent way too much time picking the book apart. In truth, it's a wildly fun read, but in attempting the hybrid/historical/religious novel, Moriarty kind of opened herself up for questions.
And as I'm sure she well knows, Jews tend to ask questions!