Hebrew Punk by Lavie Tidhar
Popular short fiction writer Lavie Tidhar gathers some of his best work in one collection. Stories that are infused with centuries of tradition and painted with Hebrew mythology. We meet the Tzaddik as he faces off against a vengeful angel intent on sending the Fallen to hell. The shape shifting Rat fights lycanthropic Nazis. The Rabbi takes us on a thoughtful and amusing journey into the possibilities of a Jewish state in the heart of Africa. Finally, all three protagonists appear in an old-fashioned caper story that will leave you breathless.
This is a deep, brooding book. While not without humour, it's humour that comes from a wry sense of realism, even though it takes place in a world rooted in fantasy. The stories here come from a place of deep history, as well as the more recent past, and drag all their action into a lightning-fast present. Just what you'd expect from a book called HebrewPunk.
This story reads a little like an action movie. We're dropped unceremoniously into a world we don't understand, and follow a group of mysterious Semitic heroes through a caper we are never told the real reason for. As intros go, it's fairly breathtaking, and it definitely makes you want to know more about these people and this place. I was disappointed, when I reached the end, that I didn't know more about The Rabbi, The Rat, and The Tzaddik.
Starting with the next story, however, Tidhar delivers. It's WWII, and a group of Jewish rebels are gathered around The Rat who, as a vampiric shapeshifter, they consider the lesser evil when held up against the Nazis. I'd have to agree. And, of course, this is a perfect set up for Nazi werewolves, which is something that should be added to any story that will allow for it. "Transylvanian" is darker, and more viscerally satisfying than "Heist," and it stands, as it was meant to, as a character study of one of our enigmatic trio.
Next we get to have a look at The Rabbi, at the turn of the twentieth century. This one centres around an unsuccessful mission to establish a Jewish homeland in continental Africa. Everything is told through documents--transcripts and journal entries--and this makes for a fragmented plot. While some of the documents were, well, boring, The Rabbi's journal entries are beautiful, by turns pragmatic and magical. They tell the story of a character who is full of mystery, neither good nor bad, and who, while very world-weary, seems more alive than most.
"The Dope Fiend"
The last story is about The Tzaddik, of course. Tidhar pulls a fast one on his readers in this one. This is a first person narrative, told by Tzaddik, and his voice is the strongest and probably the most interesting in this collection. This supernatural mystery is painted all over with the coke-culture of the twenties. As our narrator, Tzaddik starts by telling the story from outside this culture, but we quickly realize that he is completely involved in it, totally trapped by his own addictions. Tidhar manages to combine cultural myths and drug-induced nightmares in a way that makes them strangely appealing, and all the more terrifying for that.
I've never read Tidhar before, but I'll have to read more after this. HebrewPunk is a compelling and unique idea, and I'd love to re-visit this world and these characters another time. Go read it.