Archives for category: Magic

This week I’m recommending `The Golem and the Djinni’, a  warm-hearted first novel by Helene Wecker. The title makes this sound like some awful mash-up Horror movie along the lines of `Godzilla versus Mothra’ or `Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man’. In fact, it’s a sensitive story about an impossible friendship between a creature of earth and a creature of fire. `The Golem and the Djinni’ (or `The Golem and the Jinni’ as it is in America) came out in 2013 and is now available in paperback and as an ebook or an audio download. It is historical Urban Fantasy, largely set in late 19th century New York.

A wise old Rabbi finds a Golem – a woman made of clay and animated by Jewish magic – wandering the streets of Manhatten. Rabbi Meyer learns that she was created in Europe and bound to a man who was emigrating to America, but her `Master’ happened to die on the voyage just after bringing her to life. Due to their inhuman strength and destructive tendencies, Golems are dangerous creatures. Rabbi Meyer fears that he ought to destroy this Golem but he knows that she isn’t to blame for her existence, so he names her Chava and teaches her to pass for human. As a test, the Rabbi introduces her to his nephew Michael, who runs a refuge for Jewish immigrants who have just arrived in America. Michael is attracted to what he thinks is a shy young widow. To  solve the problem of Chava’s sleepless energy, Rabbi Meyer finds her a job in a Jewish bakery.

Meanwhile, a few streets away in the area known as `Little Syria’, a poor tin-smith called Arbeely is repairing a very old flask that belongs to Maryam, a kindly woman who runs the local coffee shop. With a flash of light, a naked young man appears in his workshop. Arbeely has accidentally released a Djinni who has been imprisoned in the flask for centuries. Djinns are creatures of fire but this one is trapped in human form by an iron band that he cannot get off his wrist. The Djinni guesses that he must have been enslaved by a powerful magician but he can’t remember how this happened. Arbeely finds the Djinni some clothes and gives him a name – Ahmad. As Ahmad proves to have an extraordinary talent for metalworking, Arbeely passes the Djinni off as his apprentice, newly arrived from Syria. Only Saleh, a crazy ice-cream seller who used to be a doctor, can see that Ahmad is not human.

Haunted by memories of his desert palace and his fascination with a Bedouin girl, handsome Ahmad wanders the city each night. He becomes the lover of a wealthy young lady, but their relationship means little to him. When he encounters the Golem, it is obvious that their natures and personalities are very different. Yet Chava is the one person who can understand how difficult Ahmad finds it to live as a human. Their friendship is interrupted when Chava’s instinct to use her strength to protect someone causes a crisis in her life. After Yehudah Schaalman, the old man who created the Golem, arrives in New York in search of the secret to eternal life, it becomes clear that the Golem and the Djinni are linked in an unexpected and dangerous way.  Both of them will have to make terrible sacrifices to stop an ancient evil and save the lives of people they have come to care about.

If you go into this book expecting frequent shocks and gore, you will be disappointed. This is a novel about human nature and the ways in which people can or should connect with each other. The pace of the story seems very slow at first. The Golem and the Djinni don’t even meet until about a third of the way through the book. Wecker takes her time lovingly describing two ethnic groups, the Jews and the Syrians (some Muslim, some Christian) struggling to establish themselves in a new country. These groups are suspicious of each other, but within themselves have an immensely strong sense of community. This is exemplified by Maryam’s many acts of discreet but practical charity, such as persuading local restaurants to buy ice-cream all year round so that Saleh won’t starve in winter. `The Golem and the Djinni’ initially seems to have a collection of case histories instead of a plot. There are no minor characters. The reader gets to hear everyone’s back story. There are detailed accounts of  the mysterious affliction which ruined Saleh’s life, Schaalman’s unsavoury career, the romantic life of one of the bakery assistants,  and the history of a Bedouin family who were able to see the Djinni’s palace. These may seem irrelevant, but rest assured these disparate pieces of the story all come together in the final chapters to create a dramatic climax.

What kept me reading in the early stages of the book was Wecker’s general gift for characterization and her solemn heroine Chava in particular. The Golem is a creature out of Jewish legend, made famous (or infamous) by a series of early German horror films (`Der Golem’ made in 1920 is still pretty scary). Schaalman warns his client, “No golem has ever existed that did not eventually run amok. You must be prepared to destroy her.” Wecker has imagined what it would be like to have a Golem’s powers and limitations. Chava doesn’t need to eat and cannot sleep but she has been warned that she must never tell anyone her true nature. There is a poignant scene in which Chava is so desperate for something to do during a long sleepless night in her tiny boarding-house room that she is reduced to counting the number of boards in the floor. Once she meets the Djinni she begins to spend her nights exploring the rooftops and parks of New York with him. Losing her Master on the voyage to America has left her with a terrifying lack of purpose. She no longer knows what she is for and she is almost overwhelmed by the conflicting needs and desires she can sense in the people around her. Chava lacks experience of the human world but her creator gave her intelligence and curiosity so she’s a remarkably quick learner. This combination of power and vulnerability make Chava one of the most appealing Fantasy heroines I’ve  encountered in long time.

On the surface, Ahmad is a less sympathetic character. He seems ungrateful towards the people who have taken him in and too selfish to comprehend the damage he does to his human lovers. Djinns in bottles have often been used to comic effect in Fantasy fiction or films (such as the wonderful `The Thief of Baghdad’) but Wecker treats the Djinni’s situation with complete seriousness. This freedom loving creature from the empty desert is trapped in a cold, crowded city where water is a constant danger to him. He doesn’t understand the ties of love and friendship, religion and culture that bind people together but he does have the spirit of a true artist. It’s hard not to be touched when Ahmad creates an image of his lost desert on a tin ceiling. Wecker even manages to evoke some sympathy for Schaalman, who abandoned his religious studies after a vision that he was already damned and became an unscrupulous dabbler `in the more dangerous of the Kabbalistic arts’. The reason for this vision is eventually explained but whether it was really impossible for Schaalman to be anything but evil remains an open question.

One of the major themes of this book is how far any being, whether they are golem, djinni or human, is compelled to act in a particular way because of their nature. Chava is shocked to discover how much of her character appears to be dictated by her original Master’s `grocery list of …desires in a wife’. She wonders if this means that `she can take no credit for her own discoveries, her accomplishments?’ Whether constraints take the form of magical words written on paper or a particular combination of genes, the problem is much the same. Every reader of `The Golem and the Djinni’ will have to make up their own mind about how far Chava and Ahmad are responsible for the consequences of their actions. Until two weeks time…



This week I’m recommending a book which contains some of the most convincing magic in all of Fantasy fiction.`The Phoenix and the Mirror’ by Avram Davidson was originally published in America in 1966. Davidson, who died in 1993, was an erudite man who wrote in many different genres. `The Phoenix and the Mirror’ was the first in his series of novels and short stories about the Roman poet Virgil, who was transformed in later tradition into a great mage and alchemist. This novel is available in paperback, on Kindle, or as an audio download. The `Fantasy Masterworks’ edition of `The Phoenix and the Mirror’ has a perceptive introduction by Adam Roberts which suggests that this is a novel which deserves to be read at least three times.

The story is set in a version of Renaissance Europe which is still dominated by the Roman Empire. In the city of Naples, in a house guarded by a Brazen Head, lives Vergil Magus. After an expedition into the tunnels under Naples goes wrong, Vergil finds himself in the palace of the Dowager Queen Cornelia. He allows himself to be seduced by the beautiful Cornelia who steals part of his soul. She will only give it back to him if Vergil succeeds in making her a virgin speculum, a magic mirror in which Cornelia can disover the whereabouts of her lost daughter, Princess Laura. Vergil has no choice but to agree, even though he knows that this is an almost impossible task.

With the aid of his jovial friend the alchemist Clemens, Vergil begins to assemble the materials he will need to forge the bronze mirror. They must have tin ore, but this is only found in the mysterious Tinland that lies somewhere beyond Tartis in the Great Dark Sea. Vergil visits the gloomy castle of  the Captain-Lord of the Tartismen, where he meets a Phoenician sea-farer known as the Red Man. After he saves the life of the Captain-Lord, Vergil is promised some tin-ore, but to obtain pure copper ore he will have to get to Cyprus, which is `cut off by the ships of the fierce Sea-Huns.’ The Red Man agrees to take Vergil in his own ship. Guided by strange dreams and the ravings of a madwoman, the Magus sets off on a dangerous voyage. When he reaches Cyprus, a place of rival cults and dark secrets, his problems only increase. Even when Vergil has all the materials he needs to make the magic mirror, questions remain. Is Princess Laura truly lost? What does Cornelia really want and who is the Red Man?

`The Phoenix and the Mirror’ is a short novel packed with original ideas and fascinating details. Reading this book is rather like eating a small slice of chocolate cake and finding that it fills you up because of its rich ingredients. Davidson was a master of the Fantasy and Science Fiction short story so perhaps it isn’t surprising that his novels tend to be rather episodic. My brief summary may have made the plot of `The Phoenix and the Mirror’ sound straightforward. It isn’t. The plot veers off in unexpected directions and there are stories within stories, some of them left tantalizingly open-ended. If Davidson’s work isn’t as popular as it should be, this may be because he seems to have taken an impish delight in breaking the normal rules of good story-telling and baffling his readers.

`The Phoenix and the Mirror’ begins excitingly with a man lost in a maze being chased by manticores `like great bloated weasels, hair a reddish yellow..and shaggy as goats, eyes bulging and glowing and rolling every way, showing an intelligence…far more than merely animal.’ However, it rapidly becomes less clear exactly what is going on. Mysteries are raised about Vergil and his mission which are never explained away. The reader has to guess what kind of man Vergil is from small clues scattered throughout the book. Even Vergil himself doesn’t seem to know. There are puzzling gaps in the time-line and important things sometimes appear to have happened between the scenes. The pace of the narrative is considerably slowed down by learned digressions: lectures on alchemy and metallurgy (dismissed by Clemens as `tedious recapitulation of details known to every apprentice’), strange anecdotes about past events, and a wealth of information about magical texts and objects. Sometimes you may wish that Davidson would just get on with the story, but if you skip the apparent digressions you could miss something vital. `The Phoenix and the Mirror’ is a page-turner, but you will often be turning the pages backward, to try and make sense of what you are reading. I probably ought to disapprove of this novel but I was won over by its eccentric characters – such as Dame Allegra, the ultimate in crazy cat-ladies, or Tildas, a Shaman who has been turned into a bear – and by all the mind-boggling background detail.

The title of one of Davidson’s other books – `Adventures in Unhistory’ could also apply to this one. Vergil is a citizen of an Empire that is part of the Great Economium but don’t expect helpful maps and family trees and appendices full of potted history. The reader is bombarded with references to deities and doges, temples and castles, tribes and kingdoms, and left to make sense of it all. The Renaissance seems to be in full swing but there is still an Emperor in Rome who uses the title of August Caesar – or there would be if he hadn’t run off to Avignon with his new girlfriend.  In this Roman empire, most of the religions of the Ancient World are still flourishing, magic and proto-science are hard to distinguish and monsters from Classical myth (a four-armed cyclops) and medieval Bestiaries (a blood-orange eating gargoyle) co-exist. Davidson obviously did an enormous amount of research and then picked out his favourite bits from a multitude of cultures and jumbled them together. This may not be the most logical approach but it makes for a very colourful fictional world. Horse-Jewelers Street, where Vergil lives, comes vividly alive, with its traders in beads and bells to ward off the Evil Eye, its Fountain of Cleo where women gather to fill their water-jars, its noisy wine-shop, the Sun and Wagon, the hut of rubble and rushes where Dame Allegra lives with her `covey of cats’ and the evening smells of wood-smoke, fish, oil and garlic.

Talking heads made of bronze, like the one by Vergil’s front door, were said to have been owned by many famous philosophers and magicians. This is just one indication that Davidson knew a great deal about the history of magic. As I know from my own research (see `Magic in Ancient Egypt’ by Geraldine Pinch) real-world magic required a lot more effort than simply waving a wand and shouting a few Latin words. Spells usually involved assembling a range of bizarre ingredients and performing ritual actions at propitious times, as well as speaking the right words in the appropriate language.  All this is portrayed in the immensely complex process of making the magic mirror, right up to finding blind men to do the final burnishing because only the first person to look in the finished mirror can use it to see whatever they desire. The cost of using magic is shown to be high. There is a chilling scene in which Vergil reluctantly uses an homunculus made from a mandrake root – `it might have been the tiniest of mummies ever seen’ to sniff out a wind.  He barely stops its fatal scream in time, is left with a `gray and purulent spot’ on one finger and knows that he must never perform that spell again. Throughout the book, Davidson reminds the reader that alchemy wasn’t just about turning base metals into gold; it was a search for hidden meanings and ultimate truths. `The Phoenix and the Mirror’ suggests that the same can be true of Fantasy fiction. There were two sequels, `Vergil in Averno’ and `The Scarlet Fig, or Slowly Through the Land of Stone”, but don’t expect a continuous story. Davidson didn’t write conventional Fantasy trilogies, or conventional anything. `The Phoenix and the Mirror’  may either  infuriate or delight you. Surely it’s worth finding out which? Until next week…