The City Beautiful

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Industrial Age

The City Beautiful
Author: Polydoros, Aden
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Time Period: Industrial Age
Time Frame: 1893
Geographic Area: North America
Country: United States
Topics: Gilded Age, Jewish Immigration, Chicago World's Fair
Genre: Fiction
Reading Age: Young Adult, Adult
Format: Novel
Published: 2021

Content Warning
murder, antisemitism, homophobia, mentions of rape

American History > Industrial Age

"An achingly rendered exploration of queer desire, grief, and the inexorable scars of the past." —Katy Rose Pool, author of There Will Come A Darkness

Death lurks around every corner in this unforgettable Jewish historical fantasy about a city, a boy, and the shadows of the past that bind them both together.

Chicago, 1893. For Alter Rosen, this is the land of opportunity, and he dreams of the day he’ll have enough money to bring his mother and sisters to America, freeing them from the oppression they face in his native Romania.

But when Alter’s best friend, Yakov, becomes the latest victim in a long line of murdered Jewish boys, his dream begins to slip away. While the rest of the city is busy celebrating the World’s Fair, Alter is now living a nightmare: possessed by Yakov’s dybbuk, he is plunged into a world of corruption and deceit, and thrown back into the arms of a dangerous boy from his past. A boy who means more to Alter than anyone knows.

Now, with only days to spare until the dybbuk takes over Alter’s body completely, the two boys must race to track down the killer—before the killer claims them next.

"Chillingly sinister, warmly familiar, and breathtakingly transportive, The City Beautiful is the haunting, queer Jewish historical thriller of my darkest dreams."—Dahlia Adler, creator of LGBTQreads and editor of That Way Madness Lies

Emily's Review

I'm struggling to put my thoughts into words, so bear with me. Growing up, if I managed to find books with Jewish characters at all, they were inevitably set during the Holocaust. It wasn't until I was an adult that I found books with Jewish characters set in other places and times. So I resonate with what the author says in the Author's note about being frustrated by that and wanting to write the books that he needed growing up. I also loved that this story is about Jews fighting back against injustice. We need more of that.

This is a story about grief, longing, and acceptance. It is about a young man finding his way in an America that doesn't seem to want him. Alter is doing everything he can to save enough money to bring his mother and sisters to America. Romania is no longer safe for them, but he's discovering that America is only marginally safer. Jewish boys are being killed and when Yakov, Alter's roommate and friend, dies, his dybbuk takes hold of Alter. A dybbuk is the spirit of a dead person who has unfinished business. It can possess a person to try and make them do their will - in this case, Yakov needs Alter to find the man who is killing Jewish boys and stop him before anyone else dies.

This book has a lot going for it - a creepy atmosphere, romance, and a murder mystery. The characters are compelling and well-written. This is an unabashedly Jewish story, from dybbuks to mikvahs, Yiddish, matchmaking, shul, and the challenges of being a Jewish immigrant in America. It is a very gritty novel, with lots of blood and gore. And again - love that it was set in 1893 Chicago and not the Holocaust or New York.

While I really liked a lot of things about this story, I found the romance element a little bit bland. I didn't feel there was much chemistry between Alter and Frankie. I also thought there were a few things that happened a little too conveniently. But these were minor enough that I still found the story engaging. My favorite character by far was Raizel, the girl that the matchmaker wants to match Alter with - she is feisty and smart and I loved what she brought to the story.

Because of the content warnings, I recommend this book for ages 16+.

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