The story is set in New York in 1899 when two mythological creatures accidentally find themselves newly arrived in Manhattan. Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, created and brought to life by an unscrupulous old magician practicing his own twisted version of Jewish metaphysics. She was commissioned to be a wife of an immigrant to the new world, but when her husband and master dies crossing the Atlantic, Chava finds herself alone in New York City, newly awakened and knowing nothing about the world except for the fact that since her master’s death she can hear other people’s thoughts.
Ahmad, on the other hand, is a jinni who was imprisoned in a jug centuries ago, and has no memory of how it happened. After being accidentally released by a metal smith in Little Syria, Ahmad is furious to discover that he’s now trapped in human form thousands of miles from his desert home.
This book is brilliant in so many ways. The premise is great, and the layers of detail that Wecker adds to nineteenth century New York are phenomenal. She manages to capture the character of two very different neighborhoods, to bring to life two completely separate communities, and populate them both with engaging and believable characters. While she has plenty of practical and well-researched detail, it is the characters that really make Wecker’s 1899 New York. We feel as though we belong in both of these neighborhoods, because we know their people, and through the neighborhoods’ people, their souls.
And the characters who stand out the most are Chava and Ahmad. Both characters are deep and detailed, but they are also not quite human. Chava, created to serve others, is an independent creature but has a particular type of selflessness that comes from not placing much importance on your own innate self. Ahmad, on the other hand, simply cannot feel beholden to other people; he’s meant to be solitary and the attachments human form with one another, and the implied permanence of those relationships frustrate him to no end, no matter how much he tries to understand them. The two are human-like, sure, but Wecker has managed to make them people without making them humans in supernatural bodies. They are a golem and a jinni, right down to their personalities.
And perhaps the most interesting thing about all of this is that the golem and the jinni are not overly interested in trying to be human. They make every effort to pass as human, but they are less concerned with how to be human than they are with how to be themselves without revealing what they are. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that sets the book apart from most other supernatural tales and adds an extra layer of power.
Everything about this book is great, from the characters to the pacing to the way that folklore and magic is fully integrated into the world. And I’m going to be raving about it for a long time.