The Inquisitor's Apprentice by Chris Moriarty took be by complete surprise. I was expecting to enjoy it and was patiently waiting for my library to order copies. Then on a visit to our local bookstore, I saw it and bought it on impulse. This is a good thing because I didn't enjoy this book, I LOVED it. I recognize it is not a book everyone will like, but it worked for me on every level. As a reader I was engrossed and it kept me thinking. As a mom it is definitely a book I want to have on the shelf for my kids. As a teacher I could see so much potential in it for a great unit study. But it was the reader me who enjoyed it the most. And now I have a new literary crush as well.
Sacha Kessler is a Russian Jewish immigrant living on Hester Street in a magical New York in the late 19th century. Magic practiced by the masses is illegal and the Wall Street Wizards (Morgaunt, Vanderbilk, Astral) use it to stay rich at the expense of the people. Sacha's life is changed forever on the day he witnesses an act of magic and it is discovered he can see magic being performed. Suddenly he finds himself the apprentice of Inquisitor Maximillian Wolf, the most famous of the group of NYPD officers assigned to investigate magical crime. Along with his fellow apprentice, Lily Astral, Sacha is immediately thrown into an investigation centered around an assassination attempt on the famous Thomas Edison, and all the clues are leading very close to Hester Street and Sacha's own home.
I love the magical New York Moriarty created here. The concept of the magic of the city and the people were brilliant. Her world building is excellent. As an alternate history it relies a lot on the actual history of industrial New York but she has painted the world with enough detail that (I think) you can read it without needing to know that actual history. In many ways the world building reminded me a lot of Diana Wynne Jones and Megan Whalen Turner in that Moriarty in no way condescends to her readers. She throws them into the world as it is and expects them to have the intelligence to catch up. I can actually see the real history being more of a stumbling block for an adult reader than a child reader. Children who enjoy fantasy are used to being dropped into worlds where they are unfamiliar with many aspects and there are different words and languages being used. The NY Moriarty has created would be viewed by them as a just another of these worlds.
The plot is fast paced and intricate. It is a mystery above all else, but also the story of a boy trying to reconcile his place in the world. Through it themes of gender, race, culture, religion, and economics are explored. There is so much fodder for discussion here. I could see this book working well paired with Flesh and Blood so Cheap and a study of this actual time period. I really feel like Moriarty balanced the themes well here. There is a definite sense that the the Wall Street Wizards, Mordaunt in particular, are the bad guys. She also plays with stereotypes quite a bit as well, but the underlying message is the reality of the situation is far more complex. There are several threads in the story left dangling and the end is definitely a set up as this is the first in a five book series.
Sacha is an interesting hero and one that is easy to identify with. He is a very genuine 13, not really a child but not yet an adult. He feels a great responsibility to his family and loves them greatly but is ashamed of the conditions they live in. He is a Russian Jew and an American. I enjoyed the interactions he and Lily had in this book and how a tentative friendship begins to develop between them. I am looking forward to seeing how his character grows and unfolds in the future volumes. I am also very much looking forward to seeing more of all the supporting characters, particularly Inquisitor Wolf (my brand new literary crush). When Charlotte reviewed this she had this to say about him, "He reminded me a bit of Lord Peter Whimsey, crossed with Howl, with a dash of Eugenides, mainly because he is very, very good at not revealing all that is going on inside his brilliant mind." That description is so perfectly apt that I can do no better.
So The Inquisitor's Apprentice has made a last minute entry into consideration for my top reads of 2011. I am eagerly anticipating any news of the next volume in this story.