Death lurks around every corner in this unforgettable Jewish historical fantasy about a city, a boy, and the shadows of the past that bind them both together.
Chicago, 1893. For Alter Rosen, this is the land of opportunity, and he dreams of the day he’ll have enough money to bring his mother and sisters to America, freeing them from the oppression they face in his native Romania.
But when Alter’s best friend, Yakov, becomes the latest victim in a long line of murdered Jewish boys, his dream begins to slip away. While the rest of the city is busy celebrating the World’s Fair, Alter is now living a nightmare: possessed by Yakov’s dybbuk, he is plunged into a world of corruption and deceit, and thrown back into the arms of a dangerous boy from his past. A boy who means more to Alter than anyone knows.
Now, with only days to spare until the dybbuk takes over Alter’s body completely, the two boys must race to track down the killer—before the killer claims them next.
Set during the World’s Fair in 1893, this atmospheric, queer Jewish historical fantasy infuses real-life events with a dark murder mystery. I’ve read several of this author’s books, and The City Beautiful was on my list of most anticipated releases this year. It surpassed my expectations.
After tragically losing his father during the journey to America, Alter falls in with the wrong crowd and is soon scraping by robbing others. It’s not something he’s proud of, and after a particularly unsettling experience he leaves his criminal days behind and gets an honest job. He works long, hard hours to save enough money to bring his mother and sisters over from Romania. When his best friend, Yakov is the latest victim in a string of murdered Jewish boys, Alter finds himself in the middle of a mystery not many seem to care about. The police aren’t much help and the newspapers all but dismiss the murders, but he refuses to let his Yakov’s death go ignored and unsolved. With the help of his friends Frankie and Raizel, Alter is determined to discover who’s responsible. Yakov’s dybbuk is equally determined and possesses Alter’s body. Time is of the essence in discovering the identity of the murderer because former friend or not, two souls can’t inhabit one body for long and the possession takes a toll on Alter.
Sadly lacking in knowledge of Judaism, learning more about Jewish customs and traditions was incredibly compelling and enlightening for me. A glossary is included at the end of the book for help with some of the terminology. The author skillfully weaves those customs and traditions along with historic details involving Jewish immigration during that time into the story. He also touches on the racist themes of the World’s Fair and how The White City wasn’t the utopia the organizers portrayed.
This novel is dark and disturbing at times, but it’s also a beautiful story of love, friendship, community, and justice. As a trigger warning, it doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of anti-Semitism and social inequities so be prepared. I can’t wait to see what this author does next – he’s been on my auto-buy list for years.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.