JOINT REVIEW: When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb
A queer immigrant fairytale about individual purpose, the fluid nature of identity, and the power of love to change and endure.
Uriel the angel and Little Ash (short for Ashmedai) are the only two supernatural creatures in their shtetl (which is so tiny, it doesn’t have a name other than Shtetl). The angel and the demon have been studying together for centuries, but pogroms and the search for a new life have drawn all the young people from their village to America. When one of those young emigrants goes missing, Uriel and Little Ash set off to find her.
Along the way the angel and demon encounter humans in need of their help, including Rose Cohen, whose best friend (and the love of her life) has abandoned her to marry a man, and Malke Shulman, whose father died mysteriously on his way to America. But there are obstacles ahead of them as difficult as what they’ve left behind. Medical exams (and demons) at Ellis Island. Corrupt officials, cruel mob bosses, murderers, poverty. The streets are far from paved with gold.
Sirius: Janine recommended this book to me and I am very glad that I have read it if only because I have never read a fantasy book so solidly rooted in Judaism.
Janine: To clarify, I hadn’t read the book at that point, just heard good things about it and was intending to review it.
With regard to fantasy fiction rooted deeply in Judaism, the only other such novel I can think of is Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. It’s interesting to compare the two books because this novel is much more engaged with Jewish texts like the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible, what many Christians think of as “The Old Testament” although I hate using it) and the Talmud. Spinning Silver was more focused on the traditions and spirituality of Judaism—things like dancing the hora at a Jewish wedding, the importance of keeping Jewish laws, the value of Judaism’s traditions and the comfort one could take from it as a spiritual faith. The resilience of the Jewish people was another theme in it.
There was also, I felt a deeper engagement with antisemitism although this book certainly touches on it as well.
For me Spinning Silver was a much closer to my personal experience of how *I* engage with Judaism (there’s no right or wrong here, IMO, I’m sure for other Jewish readers the opposite will be true) and it moved me a lot more partly because of that and partly for other reasons. But of course, there’s room for a lot more than two Jewish fantasy novels in the world so perhaps comparing them isn’t constructive.
Sirius: I am not an observant Jewish person by all means, but I studied our history and our holidays and I have read the Torah more than once in my youth (only in translation mind you). I have not read the Talmud except occasional fables from it (the book was called Jewish fairy tales in translation). In any event I think I know enough to see how very well versed in Judaism the author of this book is (definitely much more than I am) and I could only appreciate how very effortlessly that knowledge was incorporated in the story. One of the most beautiful pictures from the book that stuck with me was the Alef letters flying in the universe when the angel was sleeping.
Janine: Yes, I agree that the author knows a ton about Judaism, Jewish practices, Jewish culture and Jewish lore. With that said I felt that the part I read (the first 70%, I didn’t finish but it’s not a bad book!) was more focused on the Talmud and Jewish myths and mythical creatures (angels, dybbuks, and shedim which are Jewish demons) and traditions like the important of saying Kaddish for the dead, than on the Torah itself. I didn’t feel there was that much out of the Torah or the rest of the Tanakh (I studied up to Kings II in elementary school so I don’t know all of it).
To preface your plot summary, Sirius, I want to say that the “demon” here is a sheyd. In Judaism shedim (plural of sheyd) are more mischievous than Christian demons; they are harmful but not really evil as far as I recall. Little Ash, the sheyd/demon in this book is portrayed very much in keeping with that.
Sirius: So the angel and the demon are the main characters of the book – and they have been studying the Torah in the small synagogue in their village in Poland (part of the Russian empire at the time) for many many years. At first the demon aka Little Ash aka Ashmedai struck me as a way more earth like being (despite him having demonic origins and some demonic impulses) – he just seemed to me be more grounded in the human world and the Angel seemed more otherworldly.
Janine: Yes! I felt that the Angel (they don’t have a name at first, or rather, their name changes depending on what they are called to do in a given moment) was a place where Sacha Lamb took some liberties. The angel wasn’t much like the biblical angels I am familiar with from Judaism; not a messenger figure or a big miracle worker. In general, this book has an Eastern European flavor more than what I think of (for lack of a better word) as a Canaan flavor, and the angel fits that Eastern European flavored world better, perhaps, than an angel out of the Torah would. The same is true vice versa, I think.
Sirius: The angel was present in the human world, but he was more concentrating on studying divine books and seemed to not care about what was happening around it. I used pronoun he for the Angel, but please note that the book consistently uses “it” when describes Angel, so maybe pronoun they is more appropriate, I don’t know. Their relationship with gender is definitely more complicated than Little Ash’s, who seemed to see himself as male.
Janine: I read the Angel as a nonbinary. The pronoun used in the book was “it” but I am going to try to remember to use “they” in this review. If the angel was human instead of an angel I might find it really problematic. In this case I get that since the book is set early in the twentieth century (I think) and in a religious community, a pronoun like “they” would not have fit well.
Sirius: I read the Angel as a nonbinary too. I actually think it was too spelled out in the book and I don’t mean that I would have liked Angel not to be non-binary mind you. I mean that I found his divine aspect to be done more skillfully than his human one I think.
Janine: That is such an excellent point and really perceptive. I agree. I think the angel was so otherworldly at the start that bringing them down to earth, so to speak, might have presented a challenge for both the author and the reader.
Sirius: I cannot find the quote but there was a moment when Angel’s sleeping outside of his body was described and the letter Alef flying around him or something like that. I thought author drew such a beautiful picture with so few words. At times I thought that Angel’s journey was to become fully human at the end, based on some things that happened, but thats not really happening at the end, so I am not really sure.
To get back to the plot, the angel and demon seemed like good friends, despite the fact that they often bickered and at some point when they overhear that a girl from their village went missing in America (or on her way to America), they decide that they need to go on a mission to find her and if needed save her, because she was from their village.
So our angel and demon started the journey to become immigrants. It was a very hard journey for them and many Jewish people they met on the way. Of course I knew that in the past immigrants from many countries had to go through Ellis Island first to actually get to America and not everyone was allowed to pass through. A lot of what happened there was so heartbreaking to read about for me and while my journey as Jewish refugee was not nearly as dangerous (not even close!) I could still feel the kinship with the characters trying to get here.
Janine: I came to the US as a foreigner too and like many people who have I had difficult experiences associated with that, but not like Ellis Island. I agree that was awful, but I didn’t connect with it emotionally enough to feel the heartbreak.
I can only ascribe that to a certain cuteness the book had that didn’t work for me. Ash in particular (though I liked him better than the angel) could be at times a cute figure slightly like a figure from a good cartoon or a Marvel movie. I like characters like those sometimes but they do make it harder for me to connect to the grittier part of the story and its world. That was the case here too.
Sirius: This book truly did mix history and fantasy well, fantasy part actually was mostly based on the religion, but I also think it was partially a metaphor to draw more vivid picture of what the characters were going through. As blurb mentions for example, the characters meet a horrible demon at Ellis Island who is masquerading as one of the doctors who examines incoming immigrants and decides whether they were allowed to pass through.
Sirius: Actually I would argue that fantasy element of the book (whatever magic our main characters are forced to perform) diminishes as the book moves along. Oh Angel and Demon remain as such, but they also go through some spoilerish things, but especially events at Ellis Island and what our characters endure in America, I think could be almost straight from history book.
Janine: Yes, that’s a good point.
Sirius: Several characters stand out besides two main ones. I wonder if Rose counts as a main character.
Janine: We haven’t talked about Rose but she was probably my favorite character in the book. Rose had saved money for a trip to America for herself and her best friend and secret crush Dinah, but then Dinah decided to stay in their home village and marry a religious boy she liked. Rose was hurt, angry and disgusted (her opinion of this boy was low) but she turned these emotions in a very productive direction. I liked that about her a lot.
Sirius: I believe there are beginnings of two romances (very chaste), but it did not really touch me much.
Janine: I definitely saw some subtle romantic feelings between Little Ash and the angel (eventually named Uriel). Since I bailed at 70% I never did find out what happened with Rose—whether she somehow ended up with Dinah or if she hit it off with Essie (the missing girl) when they finally met (I didn’t reach that point).
A word here about why I quit. There is a lot to recommend this book, from the historical details to the Jewish milieu to the Jewish lore. All these aspects are handled well. However my main issue was that the book lacked urgency. I enjoyed it okay whenever I picked it up but then it would take me a long time to pick it up again. It wasn’t a bad book but it also wasn’t compelling to me.
A secondary issue to me was the cuteness. I wouldn’t quite say it was twee (the kiss of death for me) but it was edging near tweeness. I think maybe these things, the cuteness and the lack of urgency, are all of a piece or maybe they exacerbate each other. There wasn’t much tension, perhaps because there was a little too much comic relief. Regardless, though I liked the characters, the love of Judaism that clearly went into the book, and the story’s premise, it just didn’t grab me much.
I’ll add that I have a lot going on in my life right now and that may have been a factor too. It might simply be too hard to engage me.
I want to be clear that I don’t dis-recommend (is that a word?) this book. It’s really not a bad book. It didn’t wow me but I have the feeling that if I’d finished, I might have rated it a B- or close to that. As it is it’s a DNF for me.
Sirius: Oh I absolutely agree that the book lacked urgency for me as well, I read it in a week which was partially because work really took a lot of my time, but also because I did not have an urgency to read it without putting the book down. Despite all that was happening I was not really afraid for the characters if that makes sense.
Janine: I felt the same way for the most part. There’s one little section with the demon doctor on Ellis Island that made me a bit afraid for Little Ash but almost as soon as I started feeling that way it got resolved.
Sirius: I totally respect DNF any book for whatever reason reader feels like. I certainly do DNF books, however personally if I made it to seventy or eighty percent mark the only reason I will DNF the book if something really traumatizing will take place . Especially if I plan to review the book, I grind my teeth and keep reading when I am close to the end. Because you bet I will give a detailed review ;-). This is not *quite* the situation I describe mind you, I liked this book, I am just trying to say that I completely understand and see your point – I did not found this book to be all that compelling myself. My grade is still a B though.
Janine: Yes. I respect your feelings about finishing a book for a review too. In my case I have learned the hard way that if I force myself to finish a book I end up feeling irritated with the book and resentful of the time I spent on it beyond what it deserves and my reviews are not that fair to the book or even to readers. That’s why I give so many DNFs—because at that point I recognize that my assessment will only get less clear-eyed from there on out.
However I know that a lot of reviewers don’t have that issue and I think as a general rule if a reviewer can force themselves to finish a book and still write a—well, I won’t use the word objective because I don’t believe any reviews are objective—but a review that feels like one that the book has earned, that’s better. I wish I could.
I really enjoyed this unique novel, especially the interactions between Ash and Uriel. The book is shelved as YA in my public , which I think is a disservice and probably means that it will have trouble finding a large audience. Unlike the two of you, I couldn’t put it down and finished in less than 24 hours. Respectfully agree to disagree, but maybe your review will garner the book some much-needed attention. (Sorry for the rambling, I’m on Day 3 of being COVID positive.)
Hugs Susan , hope you feel better soon . I do think this was an unusual book and the one that deserves a lot of attention .
Sirius and Janine ~ this does sound intriguing, so thank you for your review.
SusanS, thanks for sharing your thoughts, too. My library also has this cataloged as a young adult novel. Sending good health wishes your way.
@SusanS: I agree that the book is fresh and unusual, and I do think it deserves attention. I don’t feel it was a bad book, it was more that I was distracted when I read it. The person who recommended it to me loved it to bits also.
I don’t understand why it was categorized as YA at all; Ash and Uriel didn’t read as young to me. But can I ask why you feel calling it YA is a disservice? Because of that or because you feel YA isn’t fitting in other ways (not as mature or well-written, maybe?). If so I respectfully disagree. I have read some amazing YA over the years. Of course, the average YA isn’t like that but Sturgeon’s Law applies to every genre.
Susan, feel better soon.
@Janine: Sorry if I came across as not liking YA, the opposite is true. I probably read 1-2 YA novels per month, and some of my favorite books from the past year have been in that genre. I just meant that this book might have reached a bigger audience if it weren’t labeled that way.
@SusanS: I apologize, Susan. What are your favorites from the past year? I’d love some good YA recs. You might be right re a bigger audience, but I’m not sure. The book is quirky and doesn’t slot neatly into popular genre tropes—which isn’t a bad thing at all, but I think it makes it harder to get attention.
@Janine: Here are a few YAs that I rated 4 stars or higher on GR in 2022/23:
*Beating Heart Baby by Lio Min
*See You Yesterday by Rachel Lynn Solomon
*Always the Almost by Edward Underhill
*As You Walk on By by Julian Winters
*Destination Unknown by Bill Konigsberg
(All are queer romance except See You Yesterday, which is M/F)
@SusanS: OOO I read Bill Konigsberg in the past and enjoyed will check this one out thanks.
Speaking about YA, for me this book is definitely YA, but dont ask me why, I wont be able to articulate it. I know I probably said it before, but I was never able to figure out a working definition of what is YA literature as opposed to regular literature.
@SusanS: Thank you, I will check those out!
@Sirius: To me the working definition of YA is that they are coming of age novels. The protagonist is a teenager who starts out younger (emotionally speaking) at the beginning of the book than they are at the end of the book. There are adult books that cover that too, but that’s a lot more rare.
@Janine: hmm thanks . Well for me this works for contemporary books , not so much for classical ones because off the top of my head I can recall a lot of books featuring young protagonist who comes out of age within the story . But I guess YA moved in the separate subgenre not that long ago and in the past young protagonists classified as adults at much younger age . Thank you again .
When you say classical books, can you give an example? Are you speaking of a time when the YA genre existed? Because at one time there weren’t really genres at all, everything was just considered a book, although some of the tropes we associate with genres existed. Also, there are definitely adult books with younger protagonists. It’s not the age that determines if a book is a YA to me. I mean the characters have to be young, but that by itself doesn’t necessarily make a book YA. YMMV of course.
@Janine: sure . I understood you were not speaking about the books with younger protagonists per se but with the young protagonists which undergo coming of age transformation as the story unfolds . Well the easiest example for me is War and Peace actually . I realize that this is a huge ensemble cast but for example Natasha Rostova is one of the main characters and to me she definitely comes out of age as the story unfolds . Another example is Three Musketeers . We meet D’Artanian when he is eighteen and to me he very much comes out of age as well . I can give some other examples as well but it will get long . As I said I had been struggling with the working definition for YA for quite some time now and very much would love to figure it out for myself .
I think those books can’t possibly be YA because YA didn’t exist when they were written. Indeed genre distinctions / divisions didn’t really exist at that time. That’s why I wouldn’t use them as an example of why something is or is not YA.
Now if you want to say that Donna Tartt’s recent book The Goldfinch is about a young man and how he grows up / come of age yet that book is not considered YA, I agree it’s not YA even though it has those elements. The characterization and language are more in the tradition of literary fiction.
There are also books about young people that don’t have those elements at all (no coming of age). I would not consider those YA either, but I’m sure some are published as YA. To an extent YA is determined by its audience — if a book is largely written for teens, it’s YA. However nowadays there is a lot of crossover to adults reading YA.
@Janine: I guess my point is that while I can see the definition of protagonist coming out of age being somewhat helpful to me ( actually way more helpful than anything else I saw before ), it is still not completely helpful for me . A Wikipedia describes YA as books with the subjects which are of utmost or primary importance to teenagers and that feels so broad and so very unhelpful . In general the whole YA definition kind of feels like a marketing gimmick to a degree . kids books I get , YA – not so much . Oh well . I appreciate you sharing your definition as I said it is way more helpful than anything else I encountered before .