The scene is Budapest, Hungary in the late 1930’s. Hitler’s saber rattling over in Germany is becoming more and more bellicose, and there is the scent of war in the air. The quasi-fascistic pre war Hungary is not the most pleasant of places, especially for a Jew like Magda. The fact that she is not extremely observant matters not to the thugs of the fascistic Arrow Cross. The threat to her and her sheltered sister Gisele is clear. In point of fact, can any be safe when the drums begin to roll? The danger is not only to the mundane, but also to the supernatural community in Budapest as well.
Oh, yes, for you see, Magda is a witch, and a rather good one. Working for a powerful vampire, a vision of future events unveiled by her sister, and a mysterious caller to her vampire patron lead Magda to summon the ghost of her ancestor, the witch of Ein Dor, who once counseled Solomon in ancient Israel. The witch’s warning and command is clear, if the angelically created Book of Raziel is not recovered and used, millions of Jews and others will die at Hitler’s hand. But to use it has its own perils, and perhaps Hitler would be interested in ensuring his power and dreams with such a powerful text? Especially if possession of the book might be key to binding, damning and using the power of the Angel himself?
The threat to the world may be far more than just bullets and bombs. And if Magda does not act, the entire world will Fall.
Lady Lazarus is a novel from Michele Lang, melding the chaotic world of pre-war Europe with a supernatural palimpest of witches, vampires, demons and angels. Magda, the latest scion of the Lazarus clan is our heroine, struggling to save who and what she can, caught between the prophecy of her sister Gisele, and the dread warning from the witch of Ein Dor. Add in her complicated relationship with Raziel, author of the Book of Raziel, and those who oppose her, and mix well.
High concept? Urban Fantasy in pre-WWII Europe, with a Jewish witch facing witches, demonesses, sorcerers and worse.
The worldbuilding and the concept are far and away the best thing about the novel.
Taking on the world just before the second World War is not for the timid. There is a dark knot of history there, especially for Europe. Its a matter not to be played with or dealt with without forethought. Lady Lazarus takes on this world by building a whole supernatural world that overlays the world of the novel. Its clearly not quite our world, since there isn’t an extremely strong Masquerade (to use the White Wolf term) for the supernatural beings of this universe, but they don’t overwhelm the society and the world. You don’t go to the Cafe Istanbul for its tasty rumballs because you, like everyone else, know that’s where the vampires play. But they haven’t taken over the world in some vast conspiracy. There are witches living in the countryside in Germany and Austria. Werewolves are not just stories from the Brothers Grimm. The supernatural world works as a shadow world to the real one, best avoided, but this world implies that everyone knows about these sorts of things lurk in the dark and go bump in the night. In that way, the world of Lady Lazarus is a little more like the style of an open supernatural world urban fantasy than a hidden supernatural world one.
The magical elements are the other strong arm of the novel. I name this as distinct from the worldbuilding above in the sense of how they play out. We’ve all seen tons of movies and read plenty of books with Wiccan magic, Norse magic, Christian magic, and the like. This is the first novel (and only second story I can recall) that I’ve read where the magic is distinctly and unavoidably Jewish. Lady Lazarus uses the author’s traditions to excellent effect and uniquely played out. Its an unexplored tradition with its own special themes and aspects. It feels right and proper that such a tradition places such a strong emphasis on the power of a book and of words.
For me, though, the novel has a number of large and glaring weaknesses. I felt the characterizations and character development to be underwhelming, especially given the romance between Magda and Raziel. It just never breathed into full life for me. Magda is a female character with agency, but the relationships between her and the rest of the characters, protagonists and antagonists alike, never felt solid to me.
The plotting of the novel doesn’t feel right, either. After a tragic failure by Magda, she seems unconcerned for an excessive amount of time about someone she left behind in the meantime. I was left wondering what happened to the character, until Magda finally decided to wonder herself. The novel loses a lot of time wandering the countryside after Magda’s train trip is derailed, and the last portion of the book after the climactic confrontation feels off as well. The beats of the novel felt discordant.
The writing itself feels off as well, a tone of writing that I just could not enjoy that much. Although its a far over-used word, the word that comes to mind to describe the tone and style of the writing is melodramatic. Overwrought. It is weighty subject matter, dealing with supernatural doings on the eve of the Second World War, but it feels as if the text tries too hard. And sometimes, with its first person narrative, that the text is overwritten. Magda does an awful lot of watching and observing, and telling us that she is, rather than describing action more directly.
I was recently reading a post by John Barnes about dipping and flipping, a technique to absorb pieces of a text rather than reading straight through. In some ways, Lady Lazarus might have worked better for me with such a scheme than actually reading it straight through. There are wonderful nuggets of ideas here. Lang has taken her family’s real history, given it more than a helping of magic, and created a Jewish witch heroine with agency. The Book of Raziel is a real thing from our world, its a medieval Kabbalistic grimoire. I’ve seen a copy. Having Hitler take control of the werewolves of Germany in the way he was an inspired idea.
The rest of the novel, alas, just didn’t work well enough for me to recommend it. As I have said before, the world building ideas are the best thing about the book and what I will take away from it.