Archives for posts with tag: Urban Fantasy

This week I’m recommending the ultimate in Urban Fantasy – Mark Helprin’s `Winter’s Tale’, which was first published in 1983. Out this year are paperback and ebook editions under the title of `A New York Winter’s Tale’, to coincide with the release of a film adaptation by Akiva Goldsman. This is a sweet, romantic, and visually beautiful film, but with a two-hour running time it could never hope to do justice to Helprin’s very long and complex novel . If  you’ve just seen the film and, baffled by fleeting references to fallen angels, wondered if bits of the story are missing, the answer is a resounding yes. Whether or not you enjoyed `A New York Winter’s Tale’, it is well worth giving the original novel a try.

In the late 19th century, in a city very like New York, a baby boy is found floating in a miniature boat called City of Justice by the primitive Baymen who live in the marshes. They call him Peter Lake and care for him until he is twelve years old before sending him to Manhatten to find his own path. Peter ends up in an orphanage where a strange clergyman called Reverend Mootfowl encourages Peter’s love for all types of machinery. Peter and his friend Cecil are delighted to be chosen to work on a new machine for a bridge-building project until the dreadful day when they think they have accidentally killed Mootfowl. Peter and Cecil run away and are forced to join the Short Tails gang led by the terrifying Pearly Soames. Peter grows up to be an accomplished burglar and is content enough until one of Pearly’s criminal schemes involves wiping out the Baymen. Peter foils this plan but is soon on the run from Pearly and the brutal Short Tails. He only escapes because he finds a marvellous white horse who can sometimes fly.

Peter’s life changes again when he meets the beautiful Beverly Penn, a young woman who is dying of consumption. She is the daughter of wealthy newspaper owner and philanthropist, Isaac Penn. Peter follows her to the Penn’s country house on the Lake of the Coheeries, a place that doesn’t quite seem to be on any map. Beverly is somehow able to protect Peter from Pearly’s malicious power, but their happiness is not destined to last. Peter is a broken man but he cannot die until he has helped to bring about a miracle. As the year 2000 approaches, Peter’s destiny is linked to a new generation of the Penn family  and to Virginia, a young journalist and mother from the Lake of the Coheeries and her husband, Hardesty, who is driven to search for `a perfectly just city’. The trouble is, Peter Lake doesn’t remember who he is or know what he is meant to do.  Meanwhile the city of New York has become a battleground between the forces of order and chaos and a miraculous bridge of light is being built which could mean the end of everything….

Some reviewers of the film `A New York Winter’s Tale’ complained that the plot was too strange and complicated for them to follow. Goodness knows how they would have coped with the original novel and its huge cast of eccentric characters. I’m assuming that the discerning readers of my Blog enjoy strangeness and are well used to dealing with multi-layered, time-bending plots. However, if you normally like fast-paced fiction, you will have to slow down and learn to enjoy the side-shows as much as the main story. The 799 pages of `Winter’s Tale’ contain far more than I could pack into a conventional plot summary. Athansor, the creature of legend who can appear as a white horse, gallops into the story at key moments. Pearly and the grotesque Short Tails are a perpetual part of the criminal underworld, always waiting for the chance to rob, kill and burn. Yet Jackson Mead, the mysterious bridge-builder served by Cecil and Mootfowl, may be even more dangerous to the city. Peter and Beverly’s doomed but glorious romance is just the first of several memorable love stories in the book, including one in which two people fall in love talking through a wall before they’ve seen each other. Peter’s actions are vital to the over-arching storyline but he is absent for much of the book, while the focus shifts to characters such as quirky writer, Virginia and her `dumplingesque’ mother, Mrs Gamely, and Hardesty Marratta a young man who has to choose between inheriting a vast fortune or a single gold salver inscribed with the intriguing words: For what can be imagined more beautiful than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone.

Helprin has re-imagined his fictional city with extraordinary intensity. His singing prose makes the suspension bridges and skyscrapers of New York as beautiful and magical as the castles and forests of conventional Fantasy and the derelict docks, claustrophobic silt- chambers and garbage-strewn alleys as sinister as anything in Mordor.  If I hadn’t been there, I  would think that Helprin had made up the zodiac-painted dome of  Grand Central Station. It certainly makes the perfect hiding place for the elusive Peter Lake. Much of the novel is about the continuous struggle for the soul of this version of New York, a struggle that is sometimes represented by the contrast between the city’s two leading newspapers – `The Sun’ run by the Penn family (British readers will have to forget about our own `Sun’ newpaper which is very far from being `a beacon of light’) and `The Ghost’ owned by dim rival press-baron Craig Binkey. Near the end of the book an election is fought between the corrupt `Ermine Mayor’ and `retrogressive’ idealist, Praeger de Pinto, one of whose policies is to condemn `electronic slavery’ and `reassert the primacy and sacredness of the printed page’. Some of the arguments in this section of the novel concern the best way to live the `American dream’ but the book has other themes which are more universal. It even tackles the big question of whether human suffering has a purpose.

Jackson Mead wants to put a stop to the chaos of human life and impose divine justice and endless peace on the city but even his helpers can see that it is the on-going war between good and evil which stimulates `the wonderful small triumphs of the soul’. Pearly Soames, a villain with a curious passion for pure colour, argues that love is finite and that what you give away, you lose. Peter Lake comes to believe that love lasts for ever as it is passed from soul to soul and that nothing is ever lost in the giving. In `Winter’s Tale’, miracles aren’t seen as divine interventions in human affairs, but as acts of cosmic justice eventually brought about through the sacrifices of individuals. Some readers may feel that there are a few too many earnest discussions in this deeply serious novel, but you will find plenty of thrilling action scenes as well. At the climax of the story, New York suffers an exceptionally cold winter and then faces destruction in storms of fire. Sadly, the film-makers don’t seem to have had the budget for these apocalyptic scenes, but nobody describes dramatic weather better than Helprin. His clouds alone are worth the price of the novel.

`Winter’s Tale’ isn’t for everyone. Some people find it incomprehensible or overblown and pretentious, but for other readers this is the book they keep coming back to, the book that gives them hope in dark times or makes sense of their lives. It might be worth finding out whether `Winter’s Tale’ could be your `desert island book’. Until two weeks time.



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 novel by Holly Black, a writer who excels at creating tough Urban Fantasy based on Fairy Tale motifs. `White Cat’ came out in 2010 and it’s the first in her `Curse Workers’ series. Although the leading characters are teenagers, the tone and content of `White Cat’ make it too dark a novel for young readers. It is available in paperback or as an ebook, and the audio edition (read by Jesse Eisenberg) is particularly good. Making modern New Jersey seem magical isn’t easy, but Black is up to the challenge. In her version of reality, the power to work magic with the touch of a hand runs in certain families. Each `Curse Worker’ has a particular skill. They may be able to affect luck, alter memories, dreams or emotions, or even kill with a touch. Working magic became illegal in America in 1929, so now `Worker’ families are usually part of the criminal underworld.

The story starts with a terrified boy on a rooftop. Seventeen year-old Cassel Sharpe is trying to fit in at Wallingford, a boarding school for wealthy  kids. It isn’t easy because his background is far from normal. His grandfather is a `Death Worker’, his father is dead, his mother is in prison for fraud and his brothers work for Zacharov, an infamous Russian-American gang-boss. Cassel feels like an outsider in his own family because he is the only one who doesn’t have a magical talent, so he tries to compensate by being the perfect con artist. Worse still, Cassel knows that he’s a murderer. Three years ago he stabbed his best friend, Lila Zacharov to death. Cassel can’t remember why he killed her, but he’s grateful to his elder brothers, Philip and Barron for covering up the crime. His mother has taught him that `there is no-one who will love you like your family’.

After a nightmare about a white cat causes Cassel to sleepwalk onto the roof of his dorm,  he’s thrown out of Wallingford. While he’s scheming to get himself reinstated, Cassel is forced to stay with his relatives.  He soon notices that something is very wrong with Philip’s marriage and he discovers that Barron has dropped out of Law School. The cat that haunts Cassel’s dreams turns up at the family home and is obviously no ordinary pet. Increasingly troubled by the gaps in his memory, Cassel begins to suspect that his brothers have been lying to him about a lot of things. He turns to non-Worker friends, his room-mate Sam and Sam’s girlfriend Daneca, to help him deceive his relatives and protect the white cat. When Cassel learns the cat’s identity, he also learns some frightening truths about himself and the powers he never knew he had. Betrayed by the people closest to him, Cassel is drawn into a dangerous plan to gain revenge…

`White Cat’ combines a common Fantasy theme (young man discovers that he has unusual powers) with a standard gangster-thriller plot (young criminals conspire to take over the family crime business, even if it means murdering people they’ve sworn to be loyal to) but the result is surprisingly distinctive. This is partly due to Black’s subtle world-building. To begin with, Cassel’s world seems virtually identical with contemporary America. A few small details puzzle the reader. Why do students at Wallingford wear amulets and why is Cassel shocked to see his sister-in-law without her gloves? It gradually becomes apparent that gloves are mandatory because anyone might be a Curse Worker and everyone is afraid of being touched by one. Bare hands are considered `as potentially deadly as unsheathed blades’. In this America, people can be transformed into animals or objects, or have false emotions and memories imposed on them. The gangster chief, Zacharov can identify himself with Koshchey the Deathless, the unkillable sorcerer of Russian folklore (see my April post on `Prince Ivan’ for another version of this character) but genuine magical protection is hard to come by.

One of the things which makes Black’s magic so convincing is that it comes at a very high cost. Every time a Curse Worker uses his or her special skill, there is `blowback’, so Cassel’s Death Worker grandfather has rotting fingers and his Memory Worker brother, Barron, can no longer remember his own life without keeping notes of what he does. In the background, important issues with real life parallels are hinted at. Some politicians are advocating compulsory testing of all citizens for `Worker’ powers but Daneca’s mother is running a group lobbying for the decriminalization of magic, so that Workers are no longer forced to hide their skills. By the end of the story, Cassel has become more aware of the brutal persecution of Curse Workers in other countries, and the potential of some kinds of magic to be used for good, but he still fears it may be too late for himself to be anything but a monster.

At the start of `White Cat’ it is hard to see clever Cassel as a hero. He runs a betting business at school, lies, cheats and steals as a matter of course, and treats anyone outside his own family as a potential `mark’. If he’s really murdered the girl he had a crush on, he is also a psychopath. As we get to know Cassel from the inside, this seems less and less likely and it becomes easy to sympathise with his family situation. He has the ultimate in emotionally manipulative mothers, his grandfather won’t talk about anything important, and the elder brother Cassel once idolized can’t stand to look at him. His relationship with his other brother Barron has never recovered from them both being obsessed with Lila Zacharov, a girl determined to prove to her gangster father that she is as good as any boy. Some of the things his close-knit family do to Cassel are deeply shocking, so Cassel tells the lies he wants to be true. In one of the saddest scenes in the book, Cassel tricks Barron into believing that they are loving brothers who hang out together. This is a novel with a real sting in its tail. If you become as interested in Cassel’s plight as I have done, you will want to read on as his story continues in `Red Glove’ and `Black Heart’. Until next week, probably…