Black Bird, Blue Road

  • Review
By – August 2, 2023

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 TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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