Sofiya Pasternack’s latest novel, like her first two (Anya and the Dragon and Anya and the Nightingale), takes readers into a distant Jewish past. As in those earlier works, the intersection of history and fantasy places readers in a world that seems both familiar and startlingly new.
Twins Ziva and Pesah live in Khazaria, an ancient kingdom in which Jews played a prominent role before its conquest by Kievan Rus’ in the late tenth century CE The twins’ devotion to one another is tested when Pesah becomes afflicted with leprosy — but Ziva is determined to both save her brother’s life and find a cure for his disease. Their journey involves interactions with humans, spirits, and even hybrid beings who, through Pasternack’s artistry, all seem thoroughly believable. Deep love of Jewish culture, in all its contradictions, emerges throughout the story.
Each section of the book begins with a framing device that raises questions while advancing the plot. Pasternack’s tone is both poetic and conversational, creating a fully realized setting and emphasizing how little human nature has changed over time. Jewish fiction for young readers is no stranger to folklore, but Pasternack’s unpretentious creations are particularly convincing. A half-human sheyd (demon) has to deal with both halves of his ancestry, and kesilim, spirits entrusted with the task of fooling people, have a challenging job to do. Perhaps the most difficult role is played by malach ha-mavet, the Angel of Death. However, even his position has its benefits: “ … we get to be more corporeal. Any form we want. A lot of them choose to be big and flashy … I just want to be something with a mouth.” There is an ongoing tension between humor and tragedy over the course of this high-stakes, Oz-like journey.
Family relationships are also central to the novel. Ziva’s frustration at her parents’ apparent lack of understanding is universal to young adulthood. She aspires to follow her father’s path by becoming a judge, but the patriarchal culture he represents seems to make that impossible. Ziva is also convinced, at least at first, that her parents don’t care about their son; but she eventually learns that her perceptions about their approach to parenting may be limited. Although the author describes a world in which beliefs about gender and disability are much more rigid than in our own, her commentary on intergenerational conflicts transcends her fictional setting. Continuity and change coexist in Pasternack’s creation of sympathetic characters facing difficult choices.
Khazaria was a diverse kingdom. At one point, Ziva speculates about different visions of divinity, wondering if Jewish, Byzantine, Persian, and Arabic beliefs might actually coalesce into one. In Pasternack’s fictional world, theological concepts, social norms, and vivid characters all intertwine, inviting the reader to respond with empathy.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.