In The Golem and The Jinni, we have a blend of Arab and Jewish mythology and folklore resulting is a mesmerizing historical fantasy.
The story begins when a golem, a creature of Jewish folklore made of clay is created by Kabbalistic magic by a former rabbi now turned dark magician and sold to a merchant who had plans to make the Golem his wife. Not yet awakened, the merchant and his sleeping Golem head from Poland to America to begin a new life.
His plan was to awaken the Golem once they arrived in America but the man could wait no longer. He opens this Golem’s crate and awakens her. She barely has a chance to get to know her master when he suddenly dies on the ship from a burst appendix. Now masterless, confused and frightened, she finds herself in New York in 1899. Luckily, a local Rabbi — Rabbi Meyer — recognizes her for what she is and offers to help her integrate into this strange new society. New for her, that is, as she’s only been alive for a couple of days.
Given that he can’t simply refer to her as “The Golem”, the Rabbi names her “Chava.”
The second creature in our story, a Jinni, a creature of Arabic folklore who is given the name Ahmad, perhaps more commonly known as a Djin or a genie. The Jinni is a creature of fire, and this particular Jinni was born in the ancient Syrian Desert over a thousand years ago. He is released accidentally from a flask by a tinsmith, and when the Jinni awakens, he notices that he now wears an iron wrist-cuff which means only one thing: that he was trapped in the flask by a wizard and that he’s been inside the flask for over a thousand years. The Jinni, however, has no memory of the wizard nor how he came to be in the flask.
So the story follows both our Golem and our Jinni as they try to fit in with their immigrant neighbors while hiding who — or should I say what — they really are. It’s a wonderful tale of two creatures trying to fit into a world they don’t understand. One evening, they haphazardly meet by chance on the streets of New York and an unlikely friendship develops between the two. But a few weeks after their initial meeting, a dreadful incident occurs involving both of them, and because of it, the two of them retreat back into their own world and stop seeing each other.
So then a powerful evil — the villain of our story – arrives in town and we learn he is someone who links the two of them together. But not only that, his arrival threatens both the Golem’s and the Jinni’s existence, bringing them back together once again out of necessity.
WHAT I LIKED
The characters of the Golem and the Jinni are some of the most unique that I’ve encountered. I really enjoyed the fresh premise of a creature of Jewish mythology and one of Arab mythology coming together to form an alliance — and all of this blending into a fantasy/historical fiction novel made it all the more rich. Speaking of rich, the characters of the Jinni and the Golem were not only well-developed but quite complex.
I thought it was fun how this ended up being a story of opposites, with the fiery, free-spirited, womanizing Jinni on the one hand and the stoic, overly cautious, almost prudish Golem whose sole purpose is to serve a master, on the other. And even their age is miles or should I say centuries apart, with the Golem being just days old and the Jinni well over a thousand. I also enjoyed all of the wonderfully eccentric supporting characters: Ice Cream Saleh, Anna, Chava’s coworker at the bakery, Arbeely the tinsmith who freed the Jinni, the Rabbi’s nephew Michel who runs a homeless shelter and Maryam Faddoul, the owner of the coffee house. Each of them added an essential element and depth to the story. Of course, my favorite characters were the Golem and the Jinni.
Speaking of the characters, I’d have to say that the character development is profound and pretty much ongoing throughout the entire novel which made reading this all the more fun. It’s also worth mentioning that though was was an enormous cast of characters, they were introduced slowly, one at a time, so the story never became confusing.
I love how, though Chava was only recently brought to life, she possesses an all-too-human empathy toward others. In fact, the day of her arrival in New York, she steals food from a vendor in order to give it to a hungry boy. She’s definitely the more emotional of the two creatures and extremely sensitive to the feelings of others, as we also see in her caring for her Coworker Anna. This might have something to do with the Golem’s ability to hear the thoughts and know the desires of others.
The Jinni, on the other hand, is wilder, passionate and much more rash than the Golem. He’s willing to explore his new world whereas the Golem approaches it more hesitatingly, more cautiously.
But no matter what happens to them, we as the reader, always need to remember that the Golem and the Jinni are two creatures tied to their natures, no matter how much they may wish to convince themselves otherwise. In this way, the author brings her characters to rich life, letting all of them thrive in their complexity and near-humanness. I did find it especially interesting how whenever these two creatures got together, they always ended up deeply discussing the human condition, an interesting topic for two non-human creatures.
Another thing that really worked for me in this story was the exquisite world-building. It’s apparent that the author did an incredible amount of research for this novel – research into setting both turn-of-the-century life in New York as well as the Syrian desert of old, research into culture, religion, into the different groups of people represented in the story, into cultural magic as well religious magic. The author did an expert job of integrating these details into the story while never thrusting an information dump onto us and at times, I felt as though I really were in another place and time. We also get a riveting look into both the Jewish and the Arabic immigrant subculture communities of the late 19th century.
I also really enjoyed how the author gives us bits and pieces, only a little at a time, of the Jinni’s past and how he came to be trapped in the flask and what actions led up to his entrapment.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
In my humble opinion, there’s not much to dislike about the book. My only real niggle is that it took about six months before the Jinni and the Golem finally encountered one another – I think it was around page 172 in the book – and I was getting a bit impatient at this point for them to finally get together.
There were a few points in the book where the story dragged and I felt that there was some unnecessary description in places but apart from that, I loved every moment of the story. I also would have liked to have learned a little more about the Kabbalistic magic that brought the Golem to life. A little more backstory about the Jinni’s people would have been welcome as well.
This book is phenomenal! It’s one of the most surprising and engrossing books I’ve read in awhile, with plenty of action and drama that kept me interested in what happens next.
It’s a wonderfully rich and fascinating story of mystical creatures, old magicians and ancient cultures with a unique, well-developed plot that was all brought together into a marvelous conclusion. So in this way, it was both a plot-driven and a character-driven story.
And the prose is beautiful! The author really has a knack for bringing a scene to life in her pages, and I could easily picture the characters and the evocative setting.
The Golem and The Jinni was not only engaging but also a wonderful study of human nature and included such themes as religion, diversity, duty, choice, desires, loneliness, free will and freedom, religious faith or the lack thereof, tradition and loving our neighbors.
It was an engaging book with flowing evocative prose, well-rounded characters, a magical atmosphere and phenomenal world-building that I had a hard time putting down. I could really give this book no less than five stars.
So this book was actually written a while ago – in 2013. But after researching the author a bit, I learned that she is working on a sequel entitled “The Iron Season” which is due out this year (2018) from Harper Collins. I can’t wait to get it!