Way back in 2013 I reviewed The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and I was a big fan:
A mix of history, romance, fantasy, folklore and psychological/philosophical musings it was both entertaining and thought-provoking. The story starts slowly by introducing us to the main characters and settings (primarily turn-of-the-century Manhattan) but these characters and settings are so engaging that you don’t mind the slow pace, or at least I didn’t, but settle in to enjoy the process and explore this fictional world.
But danger is always lurking for both the Golem and the Jinni and the tension begins to grow, the plot lines start to mingle and tangle and by the end you are feverishly reading to find out what happens. As you do so you find the questions about destiny and free will, about choice and character, intriguing and even challenging.
I am not usually a big fan of historical fiction but in this case the fantasy and folklore elements combined with the history to form a compelling blend.
So when the long awaited follow up, The Hidden Palace, was released last year I added it to the To Be Read (TBR) list.
Chava is a golem, a woman made of clay, who can hear the thoughts and longings of those around her and feels compelled by her nature to help them. Ahmad is a jinni, a restless creature of fire, once free to roam the desert but now imprisoned in the shape of a man. Fearing they’ll be exposed as monsters, these magical beings hide their true selves and try to pass as human—just two more immigrants in the bustling world of 1900s Manhattan. Brought together under calamitous circumstances, their lives are now entwined—but they’re not yet certain of what they mean to each other.
Both Chava and Ahmad have changed the lives of the people around them. Park Avenue heiress Sophia Winston, whose brief encounter with Ahmad left her with a strange illness that makes her shiver with cold, travels to the Middle East to seek a cure. There she meets Dima, a tempestuous female jinni who’s been banished from her tribe. Back in New York, in a tenement on the Lower East Side, a little girl named Kreindel helps her rabbi father build a golem they name Yossele—not knowing that she’s about to be sent to an orphanage uptown, where the hulking Yossele will become her only friend and protector.
As I noted in my review of the first book, I don’t normally read or enjoy much historical fiction. The Golem and Jinni overcame that drawback but I think The Hidden Palace reminded me why I tend not to read a lot of this genre. It just took a lot for me to get into the story and flow. I can appreciate the details and social interaction but it felt like the plot took a long time to really get moving. There was a lot of set up. But once it really got moving it was enjoyable. I liked it but didn’t love it.
I think this is a book that you have to be in the mood to just enjoy the characters, relationships and settings as the plot slowly develops. If you are happy just to be back in this world again, you can enjoy it for that aspect. But the sequel just lacks the narrative flow and drive that the first book did.
PW offers a positive take on the differences between the two books:
New characters, including another golem and a young female jinniyeh, and historical touchstones such as the sinking of the Titanic, drive the plot. Whereas the first installment was a propulsive battle of good versus evil, this delightful entry is more serialized storytelling à la Dickens. Throughout, Wecker pulls off an impressive juggling act with the many characters, all of whom are well positioned for another sequel.
Paul Di Filippo at Locus is a big fan:
Helene Wecker’s sequel to her stunning 2013 debut, The Golem and the Jinni [reviewed here], succeeds 100 percent in recapturing the assured voice, the delicate magic, the solid historical verisimilitude, and the engaging interplay of personalities that she delivered in the first book. But she does not merely replicate all the pleasures, plot points, devices, and charms of the predecessor, but deepens, extends, and culminates all the arcs, leaving the reader very satisfied—yet with an expansive outlook for further adventures of our uncanny duo. The eight-year interval between the two books bespeaks immense diligence and artistry, but I must lodge a hope that any third volume comes sooner!
As is Liz Bourke at Tor:
The Hidden Palace is a deeply character-focused novel (one in which the city is itself another character), and one which is concerned with the domestic, the intimate, the quotidian. Even a golem and a jinni can have quotidian concerns as well as epic ones.
Eloquently written, deftly composed, The Hidden Palace is a gorgeous book. Measured, striking, both thoughtful and thought-provoking, it was well worth waiting eight years for. Though, selfishly, I do hope Wecker’s next work comes after a shorter wait!
There are plenty of four and five stars at Goodreads as well. But let me offer a couple of not so happy reviews.
I dearly loved Wecker’s first novel and very much wanted a sequel, but now I wish I hadn’t. This isn’t a *bad* book per se. I’m not sure Wecker is capable of writing a truly bad book. But it’s hugely disappointing compared to the original novel.
This is overlong and meandering, devoid of action until the very end, and lacks the magic and atmosphere of its predecessor. The characters are mostly just living their lives now, aside from some clumsily manufactured attempts to create conflict for them, which mostly results in long stretches of mundane daily life peppered with bouts of angst.
This long-awaited sequel was sadly not what I was hoping for. On the plus side, the descriptions are still wonderful. This alternate world, where mythical creatures inhabit human places unnoticed, was still compelling and beautifully rendered. The narration is filled with accurate cultural and historical references deftly interwoven with the fantasy plot. In this novel we still have multiple POV narration and we get to see old characters again, along with the new.
What didn´t work for me then?
The pace of the story was uneven. There are parts that stretch for too long without a clear purpose and in contrast, important aspects of the story do not receive as much attention. The plot itself seemed unfocused at times and maybe as a result the ending feels rushed.
I am closer to Cari than Samantha. Enjoyable in parts but ultimately disappointing. As always, your mileage may vary…