Book review: Golems, demons and cyborg robotniks

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Compared to the number of literary novels and mysteries I devour, I really don’t read much fantasy. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t like the genre; in fact, one of my all-time favorite literary characters appeared in the fantasy trilogy “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.” What is disappointing, though, is the lack of Jewish-themed fantasy. So I was delighted to look at my pile of review copies and see three novels that present alternative views of reality. What’s even better is that the plot lines are completely different, although they all have one thing in common: each offers a glimpse of how human (and non-human) emotions affect the fate of the world.

“The Golem of Paris”
As a lover of both fantasy and mysteries, I was thrilled to learn that Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman had published another book in the Detective Jacob Lev series. “The Golem of Paris” (G. P. Putnam’s Sons) works as both a hard-boiled detective novel and a fantastical tale of mysticism. I adored the first book in the series (see my review of “The Golem of Hollywood” at www.thereportergroup.org/Article.aspx?aID=3815) and am happy to report that the second lived up to my expectations.
Lev, a former Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective, is being punished for the events that occurred in the first book: his new assignment for the department is sorting cold-case files stored in an unheated warehouse east of the city. He knows that the LAPD Special Projects department is following his every move in the hope that the golem will once again visit him. When Lev becomes interested in one particular cold case, he soon discovers similar gruesome crime scenes have been found in other countries. To learn what really occurred, Lev travels to Paris, where he realized the case also has connections to Russia and Prague. His search for the killer not only gives him insight into his family’s past, but a renewed connection to the being that changed his life.
I’m being deliberately vague about the plot because I don’t want to destroy the novel’s many surprises. While readers of the first work will better understand this second one, enough details are given that it can be read on its own. To give you an idea of how much I enjoyed “The Golem of Paris,” my reaction on finishing was, “I loved this and I want the next book in the series now!”

“Central Station”
Some novels straddle the line between fantasy and science fiction. That’s true of Lavie Tidhar’s “Central Station” (Tachyon Publications), which is set in a Tel Aviv of the future. In this world, most of the universe’s population is connected into “the conversation” – a type of Internet that interfaces with people’s brains. Cyborg robotiks, who were created from dying soldiers, now have few memories of the humans they once were. There is also a group of children whose existence is part magic and part science.
“Central Station” works best as a collection of interrelated stories rather than a cohesive novel. One reoccurring character is Boris Chang, who has returned from space after years of trying to escape a family curse. Once in Tel Aviv, he meets an ex-lover, now known as Mama Jones, who runs a type of café/bar and has adopted an orphan with an unusual gift. Other characters include Motl, a robotik who has fallen in love with a human, and Carmel, a data vampire whose bite drains people of their memories and their lives. Parts of the overarching plot focus on why Carmel has been allowed to settle on Earth, a place vampires are forbidden entry.
While “Central Station” is a fantasy, Tidhar seems less concerned with creating a cohesive alternative world than with telling the stories of the humans and almost humans who populate it. All his characters are searching for something beyond themselves, whether it’s spiritual satisfaction or love. Although the narrative doesn’t answer all of the questions it raises, those who enjoy pondering metaphysical mysteries will lose themselves in its pages.

“King of Shards”
What’s a lamed vavnik – one of the 36 righteous who allow the world to exist – to do when he’s kidnapped by the demon king, Ashmedai, on his wedding day and taken to a world known as Gehinnom (Gehenna)? However, in “King of Shards” by Matthew Kressel (Arche Press), Gehinnom is not the afterlife, but just one of many worlds known as the Shards – places that exist because of their connection to Earth. As David Fisher learns, someone is trying to kill him and all the other lamed vavniks, a plan that will destroy not only his world, but the entire universe.
In Gehinnom, an army of monsters and bizarre creatures led by the female demon Mashit stalks Daniel and his companions – a large demonic dog, a woman artist called Rana and a witch known as Marul. Daniel doesn’t know whom he can trust, as even his allies have their own agendas. To make matters worse, due to a curse that allows him to understand other languages, Daniel’s not even sure he’s still a lamed vavnik. In the face of these difficulties, will he be able maintain his essential humanity and protect the Shards and his native Earth?
Kressel does an excellent job in fashioning a fantasy world based on Jewish lore and in creating interesting characters and a suspenseful plot. Although it took time to understand the underlying theology of the Shards, that didn’t slow the action. While the ending of the novel was satisfying, it’s far from the conclusion of the story: “King of Shards” is book one in “The Worldmender Trilogy.”