By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
Some fantasy novels create a place and mood, one that can feel similar to our world, but which contains a magical, fantasy aspect. That’s the case with “The First Bright Thing” by J. R. Dawson (Tor Publishing Group). On the one hand, there are similarities to our history: there was a Great War (the war to end all wars, AKA World War I) and it’s clear a second war is coming. On the other hand, it contains the Circus of the Fantasticals, a group of misfits who have special abilities. For example, Rin, the circus ringmaster, can move the circus’ train through space to immediately take them to their next stop. She also has the ability to visit the past and the future. In fact, each member of the circus has a special ability caused by something called sparks, which appeared from nowhere at the end of the Great War.
Unfortunately, the American public does not appreciate those with sparks, unless they are witnessing their performances in the circus. Rin and her group choose where they will perform based on the knowledge that there is at least one person in each audience who needs the magical visions the circus provides. Rin understands this need since half of the novel takes place in the past and focuses on the man who controlled her with his spark and made her life a nightmare. Unfortunately, the past and the future are coming together to threaten Rin and the circus, focusing on her most vulnerable spot: the people she loves and the young woman she’s trying to help.
Rin is Jewish and, although she has little Jewish education and knowledge, she cherishes her Jewish heritage. She recognizes the importance of doing a mitzvah, which she describes by saying “it’s the soul’s job to put the broken parts of the world together.” Memory is also important to her: it “was part of what it means to be Jewish: to hold the others’ light who had come before and then had to leave.” This Jewish sensibility informs the novel and Rin’s behavior. It’s the reason and driving force for the circus: creating a safe place in the world for those who are different.
“The First Bright Thing” spins a web with dense prose whose descriptions make the circus feel real. While readers may not feel emotionally involved at first, by its end, the novel weaves a spell that makes it surprisingly moving. While Rin is not Jewishly knowledgeable, she comes to understand one of Judaism’s most important lessons: even in despair, we must continue to bring light into the world.
Some fantasy novels take aspects of mythology or fairy tales to create their world. This is true of R. M. Romero’s “A Warning About Swans” (Peachtree Teen), which features elements of both. Romero writes of six sisters who were birthed by the god Odin and who have cloaks that transform them into swans. But this tale, which takes place in Bavaria in the late 1800s, also includes realistic elements: there really was a King Ludwig II of Bavaria, although the role he plays in the plot is pure fantasy.
Hilde, the novel’s main character, is dissatisfied with the life she lives in the forest with her sisters. Her assigned task – helping the dying in passing from this world – leaves her lonely and unhappy. She longs for more, something she feels is possible after meeting Baron Maximilian von Richter, who is poor, but handsome. The two make a deal: she will help him obtain his dream of riches and he will show her the human world. But the women in King Ludwig’s court lack ambition and Hilde becomes dissatisfied with her life there. Unfortunately, Maximilian threatens to kill her sisters if she leaves him. Her only hope is Jewish artist Franz Mendelsohn, the only one who sees her true self through her disguise. But will she ever be free of Maximilian or will he destroy all of them?
“A Warning About Swans” is written as a prose poem, as was Romero’s previous novel “The Ghosts of Rose Hill.” (The Reporter review of “The Ghosts of Rose Hill” can be found here.) The work has no Jewish content except for Franz and his religious practice, but he does play a major role in Hilde’s coming to understand herself. The novel is easy to read and those who enjoy a touch of fairy tale in their mythology and fantasy will find it of interest.
The novel with the most Jewish content is “The Two Wrong Halves of Ruby Taylor” by Amanda Panitch (Roaring Brook Press). In addition to its fantasy elements, it explores some real-life dilemmas, specifically the lack of acceptance of Jews of patrilineal descent. Twelve-year-old Ruby Taylor’s mother is not Jewish and disliked by Grandma Yette, who makes it clear that her preferred granddaughter is Ruby’s cousin Sarah, who has two Jewish parents. Since Ruby and Sarah spend most afternoons at Grandma Yette’s house, Ruby can’t help but feel like a second-class granddaughter. It doesn’t help that Sarah is perfect: a great student who excels in cooking, something that’s important to Grandma Yette. Ruby can’t seem to do anything right, even carrying a pot of matzah balls from the basement to the kitchen.
Both girls are preparing for their b’nai mitzvah and have been best friends forever, but Ruby now looks to spend time away from her cousin since she’s tired of being compared to Sarah. However, after an incident in their grandmother’s basement, Sarah starts behaving badly, including breaking the Jewish dietary laws, something she’s never done before, and misbehaving in a variety of other ways. Although Ruby is glad that Sarah is no longer perfect, she worries that something else is wrong: she believes that Sarah has been possessed by a dybbuk, an evil spirit who is controlling her actions.
While “The Two Wrong Halves of Ruby Taylor” offers a variety of lessons on learning about our true selves and understanding other people’s feelings, it’s not preachy. To add to the fun, the novel offers a woman rabbi, something that irritates Grandma Yette. It also shows how difficult it can be for members of interfaith families, particularly if not everyone has truly accepted their choices. Even though this work is written for tweens, adults will also find much to enjoy.