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.