Date finished: 1 November 2011 Rating: 2.5 stars Format: eBook Source: NetGalley Genre: YA; Alternative History; Steampunk Published: by Harcourt Children's Books in October 2011
The Synopsis (taken from Goodreads.com)
Being an Inquisitor is no job for a nice Jewish boy. But
when the police learn that Sacha Kessler can see witches, he’s apprenticed to
the department’s star Inquisitor, Maximillian Wolf. Their mission is to stop
magical crime. And New York at the beginning of the twentieth century is full
of crime, with magical gangs ruling the streets from Hell’s Kitchen to
Soon Sacha has teamed up with fellow apprentice Lily Astral,
daughter of one of the city’s richest Wall Street Wizards—and a spoiled snob, if
you ask Sacha. Their first case is to find out who’s trying to kill Thomas
Edison has invented a mechanical witch detector that could
unleash the worst witch-hunt in American history. Every magician in town has a
motive to kill him. But as the investigation unfolds, all the clues lead back
to the Lower East Side. And Sacha soon realizes that his own family could be
accused of murder!
Before I started this, I was looking forward to reading it for a whole host of reasons. The outlawing of magic and the clandestine practising of said magic is a well-travelled fantasy path for a reason. As a newly self-professed steampunk fan, I was excited about Thomas Edison being the author's quirky inventor of choice, who had been recruited by the biggest power in the town, J.P. Morgaunt, to design and build a witch hunter. Call me morbid, but I also find a good witch hunt great literary fare.
Perhaps my biggest problem with this book, then, was the gap between what I expected and what this book is. There is magic, just not a lot of it; the outlawing of it seems to have been extremely successful so the practice of magic only really features occasionally, even if its effects linger. Gangs may well rule certain parts of the town but I'm not really convinced that they are 'magical gangs', more just your average, run-of-the-mill gang ruling their territory using violence and fear.
On the plus side for the book were the dybbuk, a hideous demon parasite based on Jewish folklore that can be summoned to steal a person's soul and slip into their lives to act out their every malicious whim, Harry Houdini's cameo and Sacha's development from child to young adult. If more time had been spent developing these aspects alongside the plot and less time spent trying to cram in socio-economic/political history and background too, the story might have worked better. The plot and timing sometimes gets lost and the tone is occasionally a little off.
Another minor irritant for me was the smattering of Yiddish/Hebrew (although I'm afraid I am ignorant as to which was being used). In some novels, incorporating vocabulary from the language that we are led to believe they speak helps lend both them and their story some authenticity and can even help enhance the story's atmosphere. The best examples of this being used with great success that I can think of are Khaled Hosseini's The Kiterunner and A Thousand Splendid Suns (reviewed here). What Moriarty failed to do, however, was provide any translations or enough context for me to figure out what the word was supposed to mean. The effect was that, rather than feeling closer to the characters and more involved in their lives, I felt as though I was on the outside of something; as though they were on the inside of a joke that I just couldn't follow or appreciate.
On the whole, the characters are likeable and work well together. Although the whole poor boy meets rich girl thing has obviously been done before, there was a sweet naivety to both Sacha and Lily's characters that made their interaction quite heart-warming. No over-worked romance, just two immature and inexperienced young people getting to know each other, trying to figure out each other's worlds and learning about themselves in the process. I also liked the enigmatic and bizarre Maximilian Wolf. Unfortunately, as a result of the aforementioned drowning of the detail in the 'big picture' stuff, I didn't see nearly as much of him as I would of liked or feel as though the most was made out of his idiosyncracies.
Happily, the last 75-100 pages or so made up for the otherwise dawdling pace to enough of a degree that I wasn't left with an overwhelming sense that I'd wasted my time but not so much that I'll be wantonly recommending the book all about town.
Overall: There are some good sides to this book but they're a bit hard to pick out from all of the random historical and political distractions. Aside from the feeling that there are too many great ideas swimming around in the pages fighting for light, the pace is really quite slow until it reaches its frantic climax. Perhaps one to read if you read a lot and are happy to take just a couple of great things away from a book that otherwise under-delivers.