Originally posted on Leah’s Books.
The City Beautiful
- Author: Aden Polydoros
- Genre: YA Historical Fantasy
- Publication Date: October 5, 2021
- Publisher: Inkyard Press
CONTENT WARNING: death of a parent, death, grief, antisemitism, murder, violence, blood, gore, rape
Would you sacrifice your soul to stop a killer?
Chicago, 1893. For Alter Rosen, this is the land of opportunity. Despite the unbearable summer heat, his threadbare clothes, and his constantly empty stomach, Alter still 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.
This was one of my most anticipated book releases of 2021. It’s an amazing mash-up of historical fiction and fantasy, with the Jewish immigration experience, culture, and mythology liberally splashed across it’s pages. Basically, my dream book. And let me tell you: This book literally blew past all of the exceedingly high expectations that I already had in place.
The first thing that I noticed, about three pages in, was how incredibly seen I felt in this story. Although I grew up nearly a century after the events in this story, I grew up in a household with a parent who immigrated from Eastern Europe in response to antisemitism, and both of my parents spoke Yiddish fluently in the house. So when I saw Yiddish words casually splashed across the pages, I was overjoyed. It is really the very first time I’ve seen my own experiences mirrored so closely in a book. And if you’re not familiar with Yiddish terms, have no fear — there’s a glossary included in the book.
Alter’s experiences in America aren’t quite what he expected. While his father originally brought him to American in search of a better life, what he found was the same hateful attitudes that he’s known all his life, although now it wasn’t state-sponsored any longer. He was still exposed to discrimination, and lack of opportunities, and the many ways in which innocent immigrants with few choices are taken advantage of. The book doesn’t sugarcoat this, and unfortunately, children are often the ones most at risk. While groups of immigrants were typically identified by their nation of origin, Jews were just … Jews. It didn’t matter what country they came from, they were all one group in America. And the story focuses on the push towards the erasure of their Jewish identity to become more assimilated, and the inner struggle that it caused:
“I hated the idea that to be considered a worthy American, I had to hack away parts of myself, become a more acceptable Jew, an invisible one. And I hated that in spite of my resentment, a part of me deeply wanted to anyway.”
At the heart of the story is an amazing combination of murder mystery and a figure in Jewish mythology, known as a dybbuk. When Alter is possessed by the dybbuk of his murdered friend, he knows that he has to solve the murder to release his friend’s soul and free himself. I loved how it played out, and kept me engaged from start to finish. There were so many plot twists, and although I tried to figure out who was behind everything, I made a lot of wrong guesses before figuring out the true villain just before it was revealed.
Another really fascinating aspect of the story was seeing Alter’s acceptance of his sexuality come into play, especially with the historical and religious points of view. Living as an openly gay man at the times wasn’t always an option, and in the religious Jewish community, there is a focus on getting married and having children. But Alter struggles with his sexuality, both in terms of his own internal feelings about it being wrong and how society will view him. It was painful to see him go through this process, and I honestly just wanted to reach into the book and give him a huge hug and let him know that there’s nothing wrong with him. Yeah, I got really attached to him.
Fortunately, he’s surrounded by some awesome people. Raizel, a female neighbor that he had a disastrous matchmaking effort with, was one of my favorite characters. She’s smart and a total badass. I love that she stepped out of traditional gender roles for the times as well, and really embodied feminism — she wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she believed in, to get her hands dirty, and to basically do whatever it takes. The other main side character is Frankie, and I think he defines the other side of immigration. He’s much more assimilated than Alter, but even he is held back by the simple fact that he’s Jewish, no matter what he does to hide it. Even so, he manages to make his own way in a difficult world, offering protection to those weaker and more innocent than he is, taking strength where he can find it, and always striving to make something better of himself in his own way.
Overall, this was one of the best books that I’ve read this year, and I’m now an Aden Polydoros fan for life. The creepy, gothic vibe, the engaging characters, the storyline that kept me flipping page after page until late into the night, the world that I could easily see myself or my ancestors living in, and the incredibly beautiful writing all came together in a way that just spoke to my soul. If there’s one book that you read because of my reviews, let this be it!