Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Book Review:
The Inquisitor's Apprentice
by Chris Moriarty

Grade: B

Sasha Kessler is an ordinary, nice Jewish boy living in the Lower East Side in the early 20th century. His life revolves around simple pleasures and the company of his immigrant family. That is until the day Sasha realizes he can see magic. In this alternate New York, magic is everywhere. There is the native magic of the city itself, plus the magic all the ethnic immigrant groups brought with them when they came, each with its own unique style. Sasha’s own grandfather is a well-known rabbi and Kabbalist, though decidedly of the theoretical variety (no respected rabbi would be caught actually PRACTICING magic). There are laws against the abuse of magic, policed by the city’s Inquisitors, and when the authorities discover that Sasha has a gift, he is asked to join the NYPD as an Inquisitor’s apprentice to the notorious Inquisitor Wolf. Soon, Sasha is caught up in his very first case: someone has sent a dybbuk to kill Thomas Edison. Sasha is horrified at the discovery, particularly because he fears the Jewish witch hunt that may ensue if it is found that a rabbi was the one who summon the creature. As Sasha delves deeper and deeper into the mystery, he finds the truth is even more terrifying than he could have imagined. The Inquisitor’s Apprentice is a rich alternate history with lots of great period details. An open ending leaves the possibilities of sequels, which would build on the backstories of many of the characters and answer some tantalizing questions.

What makes this book special is its uniqueness in setting and plot. There are very few books that focus on the Jewish experience for children, and none I can think of with any magical elements other than maybe Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. While The Inquisitor’s Apprentice is not quite the “Jewish Harry Potter,” it does have some level of crossover appeal for non-Jews, though certain “Yiddishisms” will leave most non-Jewish elementary or middle school children baffled. Overall the pacing was brisk, perhaps too much so in some cases. The author, Chris Moriarty, teases at parts of her world left unexplored, but certain elements, particularly interactions with the mysterious Shen, leave readers wanting. While it didn't overcome its narrative shortcomings to make it on my best-of list this year, overall I found it to be an engaging read and I certainly look forward to future installments. Unfortunately, I can’t say who I would recommend it to among my library’s patrons.

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