Review of The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

SFFaudio Review

Book Cover for The Golem and the JinniThe Golem and the Jinni
By Helene Wecker; Read by George Guidall
Audible Download – 19 Hours 43 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Harper Audio
Published: 2013
Themes: / Magical Realism / Contemporary Fantasy / Judaism / Immigration / Reincarnation

Every year brings new books. Some are sequels, new entries in beloved series, like favorite vacation spots we return to again and again. Others are new works by a proven author, a trusted tour guide taking us to someplace new. Still others are entirely new works by unknown authors who have received praise from the critics or the publisher’s marketing juggernaut, like learning that Costa Rica is the new cool place to visit. But every now and then, I stumble upon a new novel completely by chance, as if turning down the wrong alley in a crowded city and finding a new gem. Last year that novel was Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookshop. This year, it’s Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni.

Let’s start with the official blurb:

Helene Wecker’s dazzling debut novel tells the story of two supernatural creatures who appear mysteriously in 1899 New York. Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a strange man who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York Harbor. Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian Desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop.

But a bit of cover copy can’t begin to capture the wonder of Wecker’s world. In theme and tone the novel sits squarely between contemporary fantasy in the vein of American Gods on the one hand and the subtle magical realism of books like Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude on the other. The scope is too intimate and the characters’ aims too prosaic for the novel to fall in line with contemporary or urban fantasy. Yet it’s also too relentlessly magical to keep company with literary fiction only spiced sparingly with magic. I say it sits between these two genres, but in another way it encompasses both at once. It’s both an incredibly human story and an entirely alien one. Yet the human and the mythical coexist comfortably on the streets of 19th-century New York City: they flirt, they fight, they even fall in love.

When I read the synopsis and the novel’s first few chapters, I was afraid The Golem and the Jinni would devolve into a thinly veiled commentary on the plight of New World immigrants or, worse, an anachronistic attack on Middle East cultures clashing in the United States. Fortunately, Wecker indulges in the former only sparingly and the latter not at all. Like most good literature, the book describes rather than proscribes. The poverty of the Jewish Quarter and Little Syria alike, where the respective mythical creatures take up residence, speaks for itself. Historical context and modern analogues are there to find if you dig for them, but ultimately Wecker is telling a story, a story of two beings entirely different in nature, one of Earth and one of Fire, who meet in the unlikeliest of places.

And yes, they do meet, but not until many hours into the audiobook. The novel takes a leisurely pace, but that doesn’t make it any less irresistably compeling. The narrative strikes that perfect balance between plot and characterization, both feeding off of and into one another. With a novel of this length there are the inevitable brief dry spells, but in those rare cases the strength of Wecker’s prose and the beauty of the world she has conjured carry the listener through. The book’s final chapters also felt a bit hurried, as endings often tend to be, but a lovely epilogue allows the listener to linger in the world a little longer and say goodbye to its charming cast of characters, human and otherwise.

I mentioned American Gods earlier, and it’s difficult not to think of Neil Gaiman’s masterwork when reading The Golem and the Jinni, since both novels tell the story of what happens when profoundly magical beings come to this profoundly un-magical land of America. As an audiobook listener, the similarities were all the more difficult to ignore because George Guidall lends his considerable voice talent to both works. His unhurried, understated narration fits the novel’s tone perfectly, and his voice moves mercurially from the demure speech of Chava the Golem to the taut clip of Ahmad the Jinni. It’s hard to imagine a better narrator for bringing this story to life.

I deeply hope this is but the first of many wondrous works to issue forth from the pen, or keyboard, of Helene Wecker. Rarely does a book’s world or characters captivate me so completely. If you’re looking for the next great work of contemporary fantasy, magical realism, or just plain old fiction, look no further.

Posted by Seth Wilson

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast – absolute must listen episode

SFFaudio Online Audio

Podcast - Dan Carlin's Hardcore HistoryDan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast is awesome – Carlin literally puts awe into his performances. His podcast is all about the things he finds interesting in history. Thankfully, with his latest show, “Steppe Stories,” I now have a chance to tell you about his podcast. It seems that Carlin is a Science Fiction and Fantasy fan as well as a history fan. In his latest podcast Carlin explores the people of the Asiatic steppe. How meeting with them was like meeting aliens – very much like the “first contact” theme from so many Science Fiction stories. And who knew that Robert E. Howard’s Red Sonja of Rogatino, and the Marvel/Dynamite Entertainment‘s Hyrkanian version of Red Sonja, weren’t as unlikely as they appear? Dan Carlin, that’s who! The mythical half-man/half-horse Centaurs? The fabled Amazon warriors? Yep, they’re from the steppe too!

Listen in to the show “Steppe Stories” |MP3| and if you’re a fan of history, as all good SF and F fans should be, subscribe using the following feed – you won’t be sorry:

Review of The Shadow Killer by Matthew Scott Hansen

SFFaudio Audiobook Review

Science Fiction Audiobook - The Shadow   Killer by Matthew Scott HansenThe Shadow Killer
By Matthew Scott Hansen; Read by William Dufris
2 MP3 CDs or 12 CDs; Approx. 15 hrs – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Tantor Audio
Published: 2007
ISBN: 1400153255 (MP3-CDs); 9781400103256 (CDs)
Themes: / Horror / Sasquatch / Paranormal / Indigene / Monster / Mystery / Mythical Creature /

At first I thought to myself. Bigfoot? Really? It just seemed like the sort of thing you might find in the B-movie isle at Blockbuster. In a way, yes, it is, but not in that cheap, cheesy sort of way, where you feel like you’re just a little dirtier, just a little dumber just for watching. No, The Shadow Killer by Matthew Scott Hansen is a novel that takes all the known clichés from this sort of monster/disaster stories and hones in on the razor sharp edges of them. He does this while still keeping the book compulsively fun.

You know how Bigfoot always seems like a really tall guy in a monkey suit? Well, this is not that kind of Bigfoot story. The luxury of Bigfoot in written form, is that Bigfoot can be as big as the author wants him to be. In fact, there is much of the book spent avoiding the specifics of the actual size, allowing the reader/listener to come up with their own idea of how big it is.

This sasquatch is an angry one. The beginning of the story tells of how his tribe, clan, family, kin have been wiped out and killed by a forest fire. He is the lone survivor and is set off on a mission of revenge towards “The Keepers of Fire”, who just turn out to be us humans. He starts wreaking havoc and slowly builds up to a terrorizing rampage. But, since the existence of Bigfoot has never been proven, it’s not exactly easy to catch him, or even figure out what exactly is going on.

This edge-of-your-seat thriller centers around an ensemble cast who each have varying degrees of faith in the actual existence of this giant. There is a retired software engineer, whose life has been in shambles since he actually encountered a different Bigfoot three years prior, while on vacation. No one believed him, of course, and he has been obsessed ever since. There’s a Sheriff’s Detective who gets assigned to the investigation of all the strange occurrences and missing people in the area. There is even a bloodthirsty TV reporter who has aspirations towards the big time, and she too latches on to the story, willing to do anything to get higher ratings. Last, there’s my favorite character; Ben, aging Indian, who has been having dreams about being chased by this enormous beast. He seems to be connected to this animal and begins searching for it, not knowing exactly what will happen when he finds it. The story seems like a bunch of people being eaten and terrorized for the first several chapters, until Ben is introduced. He’s instantly likeable.

The story is relentless. Once it gets going, it does not let up, and while a few of the characters of this book are still standing in the end, no one gets out with out a few battle wounds, both physically and emotionally. These people get run through the wringer and you go through the wringer with them. As the reader, you start to wonder how much more of this they can take. The writing and descriptions of these scenes are of laser intensity. You know within just a few words of meeting a character whether you are going to like that character or hate them, and once you do like or hate a character the rest of the tale only strengthens your feelings in that direction.

For me, the most enjoyable part of listening to this book was the narration by William Dufris. He is a master of capturing the emotion and feeling of a moment, and in such a way that it really plays out in your mind. Where some narrators might perform a little bit, putting some feeling in to the character’s dialogue and descriptions, Dufris turns his reading in to a tour de force.

This book has numerous characters, all with different voices and attitudes. He can make you laugh, cry, cringe and feel out of breath, all with a few simple inflections to his voice. Female characters somehow sound like real women, and there is not one ounce of discomfort or sense of overacting. Dufris does the reading so well, that you forget that you are actually listening to one man doing all of this by himself. All the while making it seem like it is the simplest of actions. Just like most masters of their craft, William Dufris makes his vocation, audiobook narration, look easy.

All in all, this audio book is a highly entertaining listen. Its got a little bit of everything. But, be warned this is adult material. There are verbose detailed sexual situations and gore that place very interesting pictures in your head. Including one scene of murder where the animal can sense that the woman he is killing is “ready to mate”. What follows after, is one of the few times I have ever felt queasy about what I was listening to. That scene is very well written and extremely vivid, but still discomforting. When you think it’s as bad as it is going to get for this woman, it gets even worse, and I’ll just leave it at that.

So, if you have a strong stomach, like a monster story with great characters and a great narrator, this audio book does what I feel audio books should do for the listener; it won’t let you stop listening to it. In the 15 hours I spent listening to this novel, I never felt bored and my sense of dread and fear for the characters was omnipresent. Maybe, by the time you finish listening, you’ll believe in Bigfoot too.