The Hidden Palace – Built Off The Grid

I have complicated feelings about The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker. On the one hand, it’s an unnecessary sequel to a very powerful (previously) standalone novel that tells an unstructured, hard-to-follow story. On the other hand, it is a piece of poetic beauty that does a wonderful job exploring life in New York in the early 1900s, has wonderful characters that fill your heart, and explores a blend of historical fiction and myth that is transportive and emotionally fulfilling.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Hidden Palace, it is the sequel to The Golem and the Jinni and continues a story about a Golem named Chava and a Jinni named Ahmed. Both of these magical individuals are cursed with problems that limit their magic. Chava is a Golem without a master and Ahmed is a Jinni bound in iron. This makes them exiles from their magical peoples (more or less) and results in them living secret lives in Manhattan/Brooklyn in the 1900s. Their stories are told over the course of many years as their immortality adds a lot of complications to how they interact with humanity. Both The Golem and the Jinni and The Hidden Palace use their unique premises to explore the human condition, historical events, and character growth to astounding effects.

At its core, this series is really about people just living their lives, and Wecker makes keen observations about people through a slice of life storytelling style with a heavy tone and atmosphere. The Hidden Palace is simply more of this and a continuation of the events in the first novel. However, these stories aren’t really filled with a sense of urgency so The Hidden Palace feels more like a second helping of a dish that you will already know if you like.

There are some differences between the two books, though I mostly think they make Palace a weaker entry (despite being a great book in its own right). Palace has a less centralized story that is broken up into multiple POVs that initially all have nothing to do with one another. They do all come together in the end, but for 80% of this book, you will be reading four or five completely separate stories.

Chava is still an amazing protagonist, and I think she still represents one of the best discussions of issues facing women/sexism I have read in awhile. Her storytelling is loud when it needs to be, but is mostly subtle in a very clever and compelling way. The supporting cast sees many returning favorites from the first novel, as well as a number of new faces that are all great. The one hitch is Ahmed, who is mostly an ass for the entire novel. To be fair, it is clearly an intentional decision to explore new ideas through his changing character story and he has very organic and compelling reasons to be an ass in the setting. But, it upset the dualistic style of storytelling that I loved from the first novel and ended with me liking the narrative structure of Palace less.

Otherwise, the books remain at their core very similar and if you liked The Golem and the Jinni you will like this one. This is a good thing because that core is made up of outstanding prose, powerful characters, smart commentary, and a historical lens and atmosphere that most writers would murder to be able to achieve. The Hidden Palace is great for anyone looking for a heavy emotional stroll through the streets of old New York.

Rating: The Hidden Palace – 8.5/10

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