Sunday, January 29, 2012

Book Review: The Inquisitor's Apprentice by Chris Moriarty

Warning: this is going be very long and somewhat spoilery. Sorry to do this to you guys, but I really needed to write all this out as a way of working it out in my head.

Book: The Inquisitor's Apprentice
Author: Chris Moriarty
Published: 2011
Source: Review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

Sasha Kessler lives in the ghettos of the Lower East Side, where everyone practices magic, at least until the police come around, and then they all pretend that such a thing has never occurred. Because magic is real, and outlawed, in this alternate late-19th-century New York City.

Poor Sasha makes the mistake of identifying magic, and compounds that by doing it in front of the police. Terrified that he'll be taken away, he's astonished to get something even more horrifying: a job. Specifically, a job with the very department that sniffs out and punishes magic-doers. As much as he struggles with the idea, it pays more than his parents make in a month at the Pentacle Shirtwaist Factory, and there's the family to take care of.

Sasha swallows his misgivings and accepts. He's assigned to the mysterious Inquisitor Wolf, along with annoying fellow apprentice Lily Astral, and thus starts a tour through the highs and lows of New York City in the late 1800's, with the quirky and fascinating twist that magic always adds. But Sasha still has to take care of his family, and that means never, never letting on to Wolf and Lily that he comes from the very neighborhood where they hunt the most magic-workers.

So, this was a vastly entertaining and thought-provoking book. There was all this great stuff that wove magic and prejudice and immigration and class together, and I was going, “Awesome! Love it!”

Then I got to a certain point and went, “Oh, this . . . this is the climax. Isn’t it.” And I read on, and bad guys were defeated and good guys won and I kept having to remind myself, “This is the climax.” Because I just didn’t feel it, y’all. I couldn’t work out why I had such a lackluster reaction to the high point of a heretofore whizbang book, until I slept on it. Then I realized why it didn’t feel climactic, and that was because, for me, the climax didn’t address the central question of the novel.

Oh, sure, it wrapped up the mystery that had been building up. Who wants to kill Thomas Edison? (Answer: the villain. Duh.) And for that it was plenty exciting. But while that got taken care of it, the climax did nothing about the most interesting question of Sacha’s identity.

See, for me, one of the core tensions was between the main character’s two identities. On the one hand, he’s a nice Jewish boy from the Lower East Side tenements whose parents had escaped the pograms and come to America for the marvelous opportunity do backbreaking work in factories and on the docks. Magic is intimately woven into his faith, and his whole family uses or can use magic. On the other hand, he’s the apprentice to the best Inquisitor in the city, who could imprison everyone he cares about with one report.

Working for Wolf brings Sacha into the high-powered world of industrialists such as J.P. Morgaunt and the Astrals, who all make use of magic but look down on the people who actually do it, illustrating the class and immigration questions that seethed in the real era. Thus the setup. Pretty nifty, no? Then we got to the climax.

Throughout the novel, he’s been lying just as hard as he can about his origins, going to ridiculous lengths to hide them from Inquisitor Wolf and Lily. What I really wanted in the climax was for Sacha to have no choice but to proudly own who and what he was. That’s not what I got, not at all, and that’s why it didn’t feel climactic to me. Worse yet, we’re told that he quietly confessed his secret to Wolf after the climax and . . . that was it. What?

Now, I’m hoping really hard that this the start of a series, because the world is so rich with opportunities to explore. Lily, for example, fascinates me. And of course Moriarty’s love for New York, particularly New York City in the late 19th century, shines through. But for such a powerful and emotional story thread to be quietly wrapped up off-stage . . . well, all I can say is that I hope it continues on into the next book, because I can't help but feel cheated of a climax.


Brandy said...

I had the same feelings you did about this book almost exactly. It is brilliant on so many levels-but the climax is a bit of a let down.

The book is the first in a series of 5 books. The author goes into a little more detail about that at the official website:

I too am anxious to see more about Lily (and Wolf too).

I love Cousin Mose said...

I cannot imagine how much strength and determination one must possess to read this entire book. I just couldn't do it. It is insulting to anyone that has read even one good story. I will never again attempt to read anything by this author. This book was obviously written for a paycheque.