A review by trike
The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker


This review will have two parts: spoiler-free and spoilertastic.

For the first part, let me just say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I heard that Wecker worked on it for seven years and it shows, because the various pieces work together like clockwork. You can't remove a single piece and still have the story function. Even trivial bits serve a function.

It seems she's also done her homework on the period, the places and the people. Googling "NYC 1899" turns up dozens of photographs from that era showing New York as it was. You can see the skyline, the crowded tenements, the elevated train, Central Park... Wecker has taken those old photos and breathed life into them. There is also an excellent documentary series from PBS that was broadcast in 1999 about New York City which is superb. I've seen it a number of times despite its 17-hour run time. I'm not a big city kind of guy, but my dad was born in Brooklyn during the Depression and my Italian forebears came to NYC in the 1880s, so it's interesting to see the places they always talked about. Wecker captured the feel of those old family stories excellently.

We may need to create a new subgenre called Historical Urban Fantasy. UF taking place in the past when the author wrote it.

The story builds slowly, confidently taking its time to set the pieces in place, like a Rube Goldberg contraption or a pattern created by standing up dominoes. Then once the inciting incident kicks everything off, you realize why all these things were set up just so. It's an excellent marriage of character-driven and plot-driven stories, managing to balance both amazingly well. They work hand-in-hand, and you can't remove one without damaging the other.

All in all, this was just a great book. I see that there's a sequel coming, but this feels like a standalone novel, which I'd be willing to bet money was the idea.

Not only was the research into the era excellent, but she really crafted an intricate piece that fits together like clockwork. If the smaller gears don't work, the entire thing comes to a stop. There are no minor characters or throwaway scenes.

I quite liked the contemplation of nature v. nurture. I also agree with the conclusion that nature is key to our behavior. As the saying goes, "Nature deals the cards but nurture plays the hand," and we see this happening here. The golem and jinni are defind by their inherent nature but not imprisoned by it. Both golem and jinni move past the stereotype, modifying their behavior as they learn, but neither of them can fully escape who they are. Are we destined by birth to a certain outcome or do we have a say in our ultimate self? The answer, as always, is complicated.

One thing I really liked was that this was not a romance. The golem and jinni don't feel that way about each other, although there's certainly the possibility of that developing in the future. But it's so rare to encounter a story where we have a man and woman who are just friends, without any romantic inclinations towards each other. Admittedly, we are pushing the boundaries of the definition of "man" and "woman" in this instance, since Ahmad is a vaguely male elemental fire spirit forced to assume the shape of a man while Chava is a magically animated clay creation in the shape of a woman who is designed to be subservient. Yet all of that feeds back into the nature versus nurture, fate versus self-determination, aspect of the story. It's just refreshing to have a counter-argument to the one from When Harry Met Sally which ultimately concluded that men and women can never be friends.

For once I did not see the end playing out the way it did. Although I did correctly guess the ultimate denouement, I had pictured a different path.

I think the reason for that is because I've read so many other works which were written much more quickly, so there are throw-away characters who don't figure as large in the story as the secondary characters do here. In other books, characters like Saleh and Anna end up as flavor or, as the saying goes in filmmaking, "local color." They highlight the regionalism but rarely figure into the plot or character arcs. But without Saleh's backstory of being possessed by an ifrit (a minor jinni), you don't get the full impact of the danger Sophia is in. Without Anna's side story of how getting pregnant by a lothario, we have no contrast with Ahmad's behavior and ultimate reconciliation with Sophia, nor is there the incident between the golem (Chava) and Anna's creep of a boyfriend (Irving) to set Chava on her path of self-recrimination and self-destruction after she nearly beats him to death.

Even apparently minor scenes such as the miniature golem being brought to life serve to underscore the dangers of golems, and specifically why everyone who knows what Chava really is fears her. The tiny golem's brutal, frenzied attack on the spider demonstrates just how out of control and unheeding they become once their violent tendencies are activated. It's clear that Irving is going to be utterly destroyed by Chava, who becomes a monstrous, unthinking Terminator once she kicks into murder mode. Only the equally powerful Ahmad using all of his jinni powers can stop her. So later as she starts losing control around someone else and the jinni is nowhere around, when Chava grits out the word, "Run," we know what's coming, and we REALLY want people to run.

I have to say, it's shame this didn't win the Hugo or World Fantasy Award. It was just Wecker's bad luck TGATJ was released the same year as Ancillary Justice, because it's definitely award-worthy, but it's not like AJ stole Golem its rightful place, since AJ is a worthy book, as well. That said, I think this book will last longer in terms of popularity. I think it will have staying power. It's kind of like when The Thin Man lost the Oscar to It Happened One Night. They're both great movies, so there's no true sense of "it was robbed!", but Thin Man has featured much larger in the culture as time has has passed. I feel like TGATJ will be the same way.

But as with Ancillary Justice, every bit of this story is necessary, even if it doesn't feel like it as you go. By the time you get to the ending, you understand why all of these seemingly incidental characters and throwaway scenes are in the book. They all eventually come into play. So like AJ, TGATJ is a very lean story despite its length.