Friday, October 21, 2011

10. The Inquisitor's Apprentice

Written by Chris Moriarty
Illustrated by Mark Edward Geyer
Harcourt, 2011
$16.99, ages 9-12, 356 pages

A Jewish boy is plucked from the tenements of New York's Lower East Side to help catch magical criminals, only to find that he has to investigate the very people he loves, in this imaginative story set in the 1880s.

When 13-year-old Sacha blurts out that he sees his neighbor doing magic, the New York Police Department handpicks him to be an apprentice to their top detective, Inquisitor Maximillian Wolf, charged with preventing the misuse of magic.

This New York City is a magical melting pot, where every ethnic group has its own witchcraft and magic gangs. Although it is not illegal to be a wizard or Kabbalist, it is against the law to use magic for ill and the powers-that-be try to curb magic when they see fit, sometimes to their advantage.

J.P. Morgaunt, a manufacturing tycoon, wants to make magic obsolete for the working class so he can sell more machines. Without magic to do get things done, workers would have to rely on mechanical means. But he also thinks wizards like himself are above the law and should be allowed to use magic whenever they see fit.

Right from the start, Sacha finds himself in the thick of a criminal investigation. He and fellow apprentice, Lily Astral, are assisting Wolf in a high-profile case involving the attempted assassination of Thomas Edison, the Wizard of Luna Park. And the alleged culprit? A dybbuk. The demon from Jewish folklore who takes over a human body.

But who has summoned the demon to go after Edison and why? Morgaunt, the Wall Street wizard, is accusing the great magician Harry Houdini. He says Houdini has good cause to thwart Edison's latest invention, an Etheric Emanation Detector or Soul Catcher, which would fingerprint people's souls to see if they contained magic.

Morgaunt, who commissioned the witch detector, contends Edison's invention would expose Houdini for the fake he is. He says Houdini's act is done with magic, not illusion, and that if Edison were able to finalize the detector, it would instantly identify Houdini as a spellmonger and put him out of business.

But if it's true that only a Kabbalist can summon a dybbuk, the devourer of souls, could Sacha's grandfather, Rabbi Kessler, be a suspect too? And what about the shifty-eyed Morgaunt? With all his magical dealings, could he also be able to commission a machine to summon dybbuks?

Said to be meaner and richer than the Devil, Morgaunt is certainly up to shenanigans. He pays off inquisitors to turn a blind eye to his magical sweatshop. Some also say he's a necromancer who's trying to suck the magic out of New York City. At the least, he's preying on mom-and-pop magic operations and stirring up a witch hunt.

Sasha is the boy caught in the middle: on the one hand his immigrant family's struggling to eke out a living with the help of magic; on the other hand, he's working for an inquisitor who could turn magic workers into fugitives. And now Sacha's having to the lie to the inquisitor about who his family really is, not to mention that he's seen the dybbuk they're after.

But something is troubling Sasha. If his grandfather is right, the dybbuk should look like the person it's set upon. After all, a dybbuk is a part of the person it haunts, the dark half of his soul. When a person feels fear and anger and shows weakness, his dybbuk is ripped out of his body and set against himself. So then why does the dybbuk Sasha's seen look like a nice Jewish boy?

Moriarty, an award-winning science fiction author, has created a mystical detective story that goes deep into the heart of immigrant life in turn-of-the-century New York City and leaves us wishing that magic really were a part of our history. It also gets readers flipping through the evidence and clamoring to be the first to figure out whose dybbuk this really is.

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