This post should be read in conjunction with Mondy’s review, because I read it when he first posted it which is, clearly, a long time before I read the book, and it influenced my reading of the Jewish (and by extension Muslim) bits quite a lot. Also, this is another book given to me by Katharine, because she is a great big book nerd.
And this post is pretty much spoiler-filled. You’ve been warned.
Over on Goodreads, I gave this four stars, because I rounded up; I would have given it 3.5 for preference.
On the good side, this is really nicely written – it wasn’t a chore to read it, I generally enjoyed the switches of narrative perspective, and the Golem and Djinni both provide interesting perspectives on humanity. In fact I think this is the strength of the book (… and this is interesting given I read it very soon after The Just City): these two characters give Wecker the opportunity to think about volition and control and desire through two creatures whose natures are intended to be opposites. The Golem is created to be obedient, and lacking a master means that she has to think through controlling herself, and how not to respond to every whim she encounters, and it’s really hard. When at liberty, the Djinni was accustomed to doing exactly what he wanted and when, indulging any whim he might feel without reference to any consequences. Now restricted by the iron cuff, he’s unable to take any form he wants – so there’s an external restriction – and living as a human means that at least to some extent, he needs to learn about consequence and responsibility. So it’s a bit like watching two toddlers learn about how to be responsible human beings, when those toddlers have superhuman strength or the ability to liquify metal, and who already look like adults and so are treated as such by those around them – no leeway like actual toddlers get. I really felt for the Golem as she wanted to restrict herself and not lash out; I sympathised with the Djinni for feeling imprisoned and also that he wanted to encourage the Golem to actually explore who she is.
I really liked the way that Wecker always referred to the Golem and the Djinni in those terms. As Mondy points out, this is a good way of showing that they’re outsiders. Although they have been given names by those around them, they do not fit in.
I don’t know why Wecker chose the end of the 19th century for her story; it could just be that it was a period that she liked. Post-WW1 could have worked, I think, because living in the Roaring 20s would have allowed all sorts of interesting discussions. (Clearly post-WW2 would have required too many other discussions that would get in the way of the story Wecker was trying to tell.) Anyway that aspect mostly worked; I’m no expert so I have no idea whether it was accurate or not.
On the more negative side, there were a couple of things that really bummed me. Sophia Winston is a big part of that. She gets seduced by the Djinni and doesn’t appear to regret it – fine. She gets pregnant to the Djinni and then loses it in a mystical manner and then her body doesn’t recover and then the Djinni is taken to her house to warm up post-suicide by cooling attempt (… because she’s got the closest fireplace or something? Saleh’s thinking was a bit of a stretch there). And then apparently this is a sign to her family that her reputation is ruined and so her engagement is called off and she goes off on a tour of Warmer Climes (the Mediterranean) aaaannddd… that feels like a really raw deal and I didn’t much like how she was basically just used as a toy by the Djinni and then kinda left, lost, by Wecker.
And the ending really didn’t work for me. Constant reincarnation because the nasty magician is bound to the Djinni? It was sprung on me too quickly, with no prior suggestion of spirits being reborn, so it felt really jarring. Although I did like the eventual taking of the copper flask back the djinnis to look after, getting the magician into the flask was also dubious. And finally, the suggestion at the end that the Golem actually Has Feelings for the Djinni? nonononono. I do not like this suggestion at all. Not because I don’t think she should be allowed to have feelings, but because a romantic relationship there destroys what I thought was interesting about their relationship. These are two completely opposite non-humans trying to live in human society. A romantic relationship just weirds things out.
I enjoyed reading it, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the sequel.