Thursday, September 22, 2011

In Another Universe...: The Inquisitor's Apprentice by Chris Moriarty

The day Sacha learned that he could see witches was the worst day in his life.

The disaster at Mrs. Lassky''s bakery turned Sacha's life completely upside down. Before the month was up, he was yanked out of school, dragged away from all his friends and subjected to every standardized aptitude test the New York City Police Department could throw at him.

Sacha Kessler's pre-World War I New York is a doppelganger, an alternate-universe parallel to the one we know, one in which magic, though illegal, is rampant--from Jewish bakery ladies who concoct lattkes with spells to attract husbands to the malevolent magical machinations of J. P. Morgaunt, the magnate who plans to finagle his wizardly powers into control of the nation's financial system. Familiar figures populate the city--millionaires Cornelius Vanderbilk and John Jacob Astral, ultra-wealthy Wizards of Wall Street, Harry Houdini at the height of his career as the Great Illusionist, Teddy Roosevelt, exiled for prosecuting the dark magic magnates, and Thomas Alva Edison, who, having invented electric lights and the phonograph, is perfecting and markieting his magic detector, the Etherograph,

Sacha soon finds himself an apprentice to Maximillian Wolf, Chief Inquisitor of the NYPD, whose disheveled appearance hides the powers of a great mage. His unlikely fellow apprentice is Lily Astral, daughter of the incredibly wealthy financier John Jacob Astral, whom Sacha is sure at best is a hopeless snob. But events don't allow Sacha and Lily time to get to know each other before they are involved in an attempted murder of Thomas Edison by what Sacha knows has to be a dybbuk, a wraith-like creature of black magic which progressively becomes stronger as it steals the persona and ultimately the soul of its victim. And Sacha begins to suspect to his horror that, while the dybbuk is being directed by some evil wizard to destroy Edison, the soul and body he is trying to possess is his own!

Sacha knows from dybbuks. His grandfather is himself a rabbi and what's more a Kabbalist, the field of Jewish theology most knowledgeable about the dark arts, and Sacha fears that to tell Inspector Wolf what he knows will send his family to prison for illegal magic. But the dybbuk comes nearer and nearer, stealing Sacha's clothes and looking more and more like him as it continues to shadow him, until finally, in a sensational theatrical showdown between Harry Houdini's illusionist powers and Edison's Etherograph, Sacha realizes that he is the only one who can stop the dybbuk, controlled by J. P. Morgaunt, from assassinating Thomas Edison on stage before a enraptured audience.

Sophisticated young readers may find a familiar plotline in Chris Moriarty's forthcoming The Inquisitor's Apprentice (Harcourt, 2011)--definite parallels to the Harry Potter saga. Sacha seems an ordinary poor Jewish boy from a struggling family on the Lower East Side tenements when he is snatched out of that life and set down, in the company of a smart and assertive girl, as apprentices to their mentor, himself a great wizard in his own right. But this is no fantasy Hogwarts world. It's almost the old New York we know, with its myriad of immigrants, a vast difference between rich and poor, and all the familiar racial, religious, and class prejudices we recognize. But this New York has a magical underpinning, and like Harry, Sacha has to struggle to save himself from being absorbed into its Dark Side.

Moriarty's New York is just as dirty and elegant and on-the-make a setting as it is in non-fantasy novels, and his characters are fully fleshed out, from the feisty Lily who fears becoming an idle social climber like her mother to Max Wolf, who walks a moral tightrope between good and evil magic in his daily life, to a main character whose special powers attract the dark forces which would subvert him to wicked, world-changing ends.

Forget all those myth-based monster-a-minute fantasies. This one is the real deal.

"A marvelous, mystical romp that doesn't ignore reality," says Kirkus Reviews.

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