The Hidden Palace: Double the golems and jinnis

Reposting to include Marion’s new review.

The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker

In The Hidden Palace (2021) Helene Wecker returns to the richly-imagined world of The Golem and the Jinni, fin de siècle New York City, focusing on the Jewish and Syrian immigrant communities. Chava, an intelligent golem created by an evil-hearted genius, was set free by the unexpected death of her intended husband and master, left with the ability to hear the thoughts of all humans instead of just her master. The jinni Ahmad is released from the bottle that imprisoned him, but he is bound to tangible human form with no discernable way to remove the curse. Despite their opposite natures of earth and fire, golem and jinni are drawn together in a world where neither fits in, and both are hiding their true natures from the humans around them … at least, most of them.

As The Hidden Palace begins, Ahmad returns from his journey to Damascus, disheartened by the inability of his jinn people to remove the enchanted iron arm cuff that chains him to human form. He returns to the metal-smithing shop of Boutros Arbeely as a partner, while Chava is still the lead baker at Radzin’s Bakery, though as the years go by she worries that people are starting to notice that she never ages. Ahmad and Chava tentatively begin a new phase of their relationship, but their personalities — as different as their natures — lead to conflicts.

Wecker weaves several other characters and subplots into this novel, which stretches over several years in the early 1900s. A brilliant but neglected young Jewish girl, Kreindel Altschul, is drawn into her old-school (heh) rabbi father’s plans to create a huge golem to assist the Jewish people against their oppressors in eastern Europe. But Kreindel’s father is in ill health, and he lacks the skills of the magician who created Chava. Chava’s former friend Anna had her trust in Chava broken when she became aware of Chava’s monstrous nature and immense strength and has avoided Chava for years, but her son Toby is curious about his mother’s old friends, and haunted by persistent nightmares of a wicked magician that he can’t understand.

Wealthy socialite Sophia Winston, left with a debilitating physical chill from her brief affair with the jinni in the first book, breaks free of the strictures of New York high society and travels to the Middle East in search of a cure, protected by a pair of retired Pinkerton detectives. There Sophia meets a female jinni, or jinniyeh, called Dima, who has the unique ability to touch iron and a fascination with the stories she’s heard of the iron-bound jinni who lives in America. Dima promises Sophia a cure to what has ailed her for so long, but for a price.

The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsTadiana: I’m not sure what direction I thought Helene Wecker would go with this sequel to The Golem and the Jinni, but The Hidden Palace was surprising in some good ways. We meet all of our favorite characters from the first book, along with some new key viewpoint characters. Of the new characters, I especially loved Kreindel, who is stubborn and doesn’t always make wise choices or adapt well to her surroundings, but has immense strength of character and intelligence. Familiar characters face new challenges that flow from the prior conflicts and issues but take them in new directions. Chava gains special admission at the Teachers College at Columbia University, and eventually winds up teaching Culinary Science at the Asylum for Orphaned Hebrews, where she crosses paths with a certain headstrong teenage girl and her massive golem that hides in the Asylum’s basement. One of the most delightful parts of this novel was just how dedicated and inspired Chava is as a teacher of young girls.

Helene Wecker

Helene Wecker

The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsJana: Oh, I thought Kreindel was absolutely delightful. She’s so self-possessed and headstrong, with plenty of intelligence to back up her strength of personality, and her insistence on maintaining some of the more orthodox aspects of her faith while expressing “shockingly” modern ideas on whether women should change their surnames after marriage or become educated to their fullest capabilities. And it was a true pleasure to follow the continuing paths of characters like Sophia Winston and Miryam Faddoul, as they charmed me so much in The Golem and the Jinni, while learning more about Toby Blumberg, who is becoming a rather interesting young man as the city around him changes and evolves with the turning years.

The Golem and the Jinni, themselves, go through some well-thought-out character shifts and explosive arguments as they each try to figure out how to (and to what extent to) incorporate themselves into the ever-changing human society around them, which leads to a lot of chapters in which they are painfully aware of one another’s absence but unable to figure out how to reconcile, but I was happy with their resolutions to this volume’s challenges. Unfortunately, Dima never jumped off the page and came alive for me, and the other golem, Yossele, didn’t figure nearly as much in the overall story as I was expecting, which was disappointing. But there’s a lot going on here, with numerous characters and time-shifts and settings and historical events, so it’s natural that some plot elements would feel a little less well-seasoned than others.

Tadiana: One of the things that impressed me most about The Golem and the Jinni was how vividly Wecker recreated historic New York City. Her world-building skills are marvelous, and in The Hidden Palace she weaves many historical events and people into her narrative, including T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), the torpedoing of the Lusitania, deadly tenement fires, and the calamitous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

Jana: I think one of Wecker’s storytelling strengths is in how vividly she brings early 20th-century New York City to life and makes it a character on its own merits. I was glad to see her incorporate real events like the sinking of the Titanic and various labor disputes into the narrative; leaving them out would have made the story hollow and seem divorced from the real world, which would only be to the detriment of the novel.

Tadiana: The Hidden Palace is somewhat slower-paced; like the first book, it tends to meander between different subplots and take a lot of time to develop the story and build toward the final conflict. Those culminating scenes didn’t have quite the power or impact of those in The Golem and the Jinni. The resolution of a couple of the plotlines (Toby’s nightmares and the jinniyeh’s search for a kindred spirit) struck me as rather anticlimactic.

Jana: Agreed. While The Golem and the Jinni seemed more self-contained, in that if there weren’t follow-up books, I would still have been completely satisfied with the story as it was told, The Hidden Palace leaves many more questions unanswered and waiting for another installment. I did find myself wishing that bits of the narrative had been streamlined just a touch here and there, especially since the overall narrative covers the years between 1900 and 1915, leaving our characters on the brink of tremendous turmoil: World War I, the 1918 flu outbreak, the first moments of success for the American women’s suffragette movement, and so much else. Should there be another novel, whatever happens in it, Wecker really has her work cut out for her!

Tadiana: Still, this is an engaging and touching novel, dealing with not just conflicts between people but also with themes of love and developing understanding and friendship, even when there are vast differences between us. Ahmad builds a beautiful and fragile secret construction inside the Amherst building, which may be the primary hidden palace of the story, but I think the title also alludes to the secrets and hidden strengths within the characters themselves.

Jana: I think so, as well. Most of the characters carry hidden palaces within them, building delicate towers of dreams and hopes that are invisible to others unless that person allows themself to become vulnerable. I thought it was a lovely and apt metaphor, and it’s one of the many strengths of The Hidden Palace. I hope we get the chance to see how Chava and Ahmad react to the changes the world has in store for them, and also, how Wecker addresses questions and issues left unanswered since The Golem and the Jinni.

~Tadiana & Jana


The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsClosing this book for the final time, my emotional state was close to what I feel at the end of a visit with a dear friend I haven’t seen in a while. This doesn’t address what happens in the book or why I loved it, but it’s where I wanted to start. I was so happy to be back with these characters.

I thought I would have to re-read The Golem and the Jinni, but I didn’t. Chava and Ahmad have grown, but I could pick right up with them, with Miryam, Arbeely and the others. I welcomed the new characters, most especially Kreindel and Toby.

Jana and Tadiana covered the important points of The Hidden Palace so well I have little to add. Like Jana, I didn’t engage with Dima, the jinneyeh, at first. She started working better for me as a character when I took her — strange since she is a rebel jinni — as the conventional jinni. She is, in many ways, an innocent. She is mercurial, passionate, selfish. She owes humans nothing. She’s a temptation to Ahmad, but also a milestone, a measure of how much he has changed, although he doesn’t see it.

I loved the parts where Chava was teaching. It’s a tiny, tiny moment in the book, but I want to call out her interview, where she explains how she taught the other bakers at the bakery. At first, she says, she taught them by rote. She remembered how clear things became to her when she understood about yeast, so, instead, she teaches them the chemistry of baking! In a book filled with magic, that moment felt the most magical to me.

The strange beauty of the jinni’s hidden palace delighted me. Overall, the book was as rich as the first book, inhabited by real people with conflicts, dreams, fears and loves. There is room for a third, or as many as Wecker wants to write, since her main characters are nearly immortal, but I would read anything Wecker writes at this point.

~Marion Deeds

Published in June 2021. In this enthralling historical epic, set in New York City and the Middle East in the years leading to World War I— the long-awaited follow-up to the acclaimed New York Times bestseller The Golem and the Jinni—Helene Wecker revisits her beloved characters Chava and Ahmad as they confront unexpected new challenges in a rapidly changing human world. Chava is a golem, a woman made of clay, who can hear the thoughts and longings of those around her and feels compelled by her nature to help them. Ahmad is a jinni, a restless creature of fire, once free to roam the desert but now imprisoned in the shape of a man. Fearing they’ll be exposed as monsters, these magical beings hide their true selves and try to pass as human—just two more immigrants in the bustling world of 1900s Manhattan. Brought together under calamitous circumstances, their lives are now entwined—but they’re not yet certain of what they mean to each other. Both Chava and Ahmad have changed the lives of the people around them. Park Avenue heiress Sophia Winston, whose brief encounter with Ahmad left her with a strange illness that makes her shiver with cold, travels to the Middle East to seek a cure. There she meets Dima, a tempestuous female jinni who’s been banished from her tribe. Back in New York, in a tenement on the Lower East Side, a little girl named Kreindel helps her rabbi father build a golem they name Yossele—not knowing that she’s about to be sent to an orphanage uptown, where the hulking Yossele will become her only friend and protector. Spanning the tumultuous years from the turn of the twentieth century to the beginning of World War I, The Hidden Palace follows these lives and others as they collide and interweave. Can Chava and Ahmad find their places in the human world while remaining true to each other? Or will their opposing natures and desires eventually tear them apart—especially once they encounter, thrillingly, other beings like themselves?

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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