For my second book review, I will be talking about Michele Lang’s Lady Lazarus, the first book in the Lady Lazarus series.
Like my last book review, the way I came to read this book was kind of unusual. So for those who don’t know, I recently graduated college as a history major, and I’ll be starting a history masters program in the fall. As such, I recently got to thinking about writing a historical fantasy book/series at some point, and through writing papers for my courses I settled on setting the potential story in Budapest during the 1920s, both because it’s not something I had seen much of and because I found the history there interesting. So I’ve kept that project on a slow burn, and I plan to tailor my master’s thesis to do require pretty much the same historical research I’d need for the book, thus killing two birds with one stone. However, I also figure it would be a good idea to read some more historical fantasy, in particular historical urban fantasy, as my idea would be closer to that (and my experience with historical fantasy so far is Naomi Novick’s Temeraire series, and that’s pretty much it). (And even with general urban fantasy, my reading experience is pretty much limited to just Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series.
What ended up happening was I saw a great post by author D. B. Jackson, who I have had the pleasure of meeting at JordanCon a couple of years back, on the topic of blending history and fantasy; how to insert our own stories into a real setting without completely altering everything. This is honestly one of my biggest questions regarding my own story idea (at least as far as the plot and setting go), and the article was quite useful to me. (You can read it here, on the Tor/Forge blog.)
So after reading it, I mentioned to him on Twitter that I liked it, and that it had been helpful for me, which got us into a short conversation about what I was working on, at the end of which he recommended Michele Lang’s work. And so I looked into it, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that she had stories set in just about the exact setting I needed (though her series starts in 1939, while mine would start in the early 20s). And long story short, I read her novella, The Magic of Fabulous, set in the same universe, then picked up the Lady Lazarus books from the library. (I plan to review all 3, with thoughts on the trilogy as a whole included in that last review.)
So, to the review itself (finally). As with my last review, I’ll divide it into segments where I’ll discuss the setting, characters, and plot separately, because it makes things simpler for my to organize. Also, as there is a lot of history in this story and the magic is not as central to things as it was in the last book I reviewed, so the last section will probably combine the magic with the history portrayed in the book. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get started!
Lady Lazarus is set in the summer of of 1939, beginning in Budapest, the capitol city of Hungary. Our main character (the book is written in a first-person, past tense perspective) is Magda Lazarus, a young Jewish woman who also happens to be a witch and latest in a long line of powerful witches, working to make ends meet to take care of herself, her younger sister Gisele, and her best friend Eva Farkas (who is also Jewish). Life has not been easy for her, but she has a steady job working as an assistant to a powerful local vampire lord, which offers her and her both pay and protection. Things change, however, when Gisele, who while not having Magda’s magical talent, is a seer, has a terrible vision of the death and destruction that will come with the approaching war–a vision that shows the Nazi conquest of Europe, the genocide of Europe’s Jews, as well as their own deaths. Eventually, Magda decides, along with the others, to do what she can to try and avert the war, or at least to warn people of what was coming. In this desperate quest, she will be forced to quickly learn how to properly use her prodigious power as she attempts to find the fabled Book of the Angel Raziel, which could be the key to stopping the coming horror.
When, shortly into her travels, Magda finds herself pursued by powerful enemies, including SS werewolves and an ancient wizard, she does something forbidden–summoning the angel Raziel, her family’s historic guardian. From there she has to deal not just with her enemies and other dangers, but her feelings for her guardian.
At only 318 pages, Lady Lazarus is a fairly quick read, and while it was not paced particularly quickly, it rarely felt too slow, and it worked well for the type of story it is.
Setting: Much of the book is set in 1939 Budapest, with portions elsewhere, including Amsterdam, Paris, and (briefly) Vienna. Now, I have never been to any of these places, but the level of description she used helped me feel like I was actually in a city. To this end the use of street names and cafe names helped give an authentic feel to it, and, having read Michele Lang’s free companion piece to the novel, titled The World of Lady Lazarus, I get a good sense of some of the research that went into this (though I would like to find out what actual sources she drew from, since I’ll probably need to look at the mas well for my own writing.) Beyond the physical setting, the atmosphere of a world on the brink of war was well portrayed, not feeling too forced while certainly being the driving force it had to be. And finally, the integration of magical elements into the world worked pretty well, if it did lack in detail. In a world where magic and magical creatures has always been a thing, if low-key, I think it was handled well from a world perspective, as well as from a philosophical one (i.e. how different ideologies such as fascism and communism viewed ‘magicals’, as they’re called. Obviously when dealing with a world set up like this you can find things that don’t make complete sense if you think about it a lot, but it’s handled well enough that you just need a little suspension of disbelief.
Characters: As this story is told in the first person perspective,e the primary focus of this will be on our protagonist, Magda Lazarus. She is a delightfully flawed character; at the same time competent and out of her element, and she is headstrong to a fault, which I particularly like (especially because ‘headstrongness’ is often shown as only a positive, while in reality it often does lead to problems.) Her angst over whether to simply try and and flee the coming storm as opposed to fighting is engaging as well, and in some respects can be seen as a sort of microcosm of the Jews in Europe prior to World War II. Also, as an observant Jew myself, I found that things in that respect were well portrayed. Magda is very much secularized, but retains some bits of her tradition (in part due to her magic), which is consistent with what I know about the Jewish populations in Europe at that time (being that Jews in the cities were more likely to be secular, but most still retained some Jewish identity). Also, considering her upbringing and position in society, her other opinions (such as those of the communists, local fascists, and the Horthy regime) fit with the type of person she is. And, of course, it’s always fun to see a Jewish hero or heroine fighting the Nazis.
The side characters were handled well, though I feel that some of the very minor ones suffered a bit from simply not being around enough to establish enough about themselves. Magda’s sister Gisele, despite having a role that could have easily led her to be little other than a plot device, is a character you come to care about, and he role extends beyond seeing the future (I really liked how seeing such terrible things actually had an effect on her). Magda’s best friend, Eva Farkas, is actually probably the character I identify most with (and the novella she stars in The Magic of Fabulous, only helped reinforce this). She is a magicless person surrounded by people with powers, as well as dangerous magical creatures, not to mention the growing numbers of antisemites in Europe. She decides to help in her own way by joining with a local Zionist group, and working to warn Jews of the coming dangers, while also preparing to fight. Ideologically, I think we’d get along quite well, for the most part. The final character that should be addressed is the angel Raziel himself. (First, to get it out of the way, I’m not the biggest fan of angels having free will, as my Jewish education implies they don’t. But, this is fiction, so I don’t mind really. And Ms. Lang does address this in The World of Lady Lazarus, and obviously for the romance plot to happen Raziel would need free will, and I’m okay with that.) As for the character in the book itself, he was enjoyable to read. From his first appearance in true angelic nature to his more ‘humanlike’ moments later, he felt real, and suitably alien when it made sense.
Also, both the Staff and Asmodel were entertaining as villains, with just enough depth that they were interesting, while still being plainly evil.
Oh, and I nearly forgot about Count Bathory. All I’ll say is he’s probably one of my favorite vampire characters ever.
Plot: I covered most of this in the general description of the book, but I’ll recap here. After learning of the dark future in store for Europe’s Jews, as well as Europe as a whole, Magda comes to agree that she should try and avert the war. To do this, she needs to find her family’s birthright, the book of Raziel. This search will take her to Amsterdam, where she is also to contact someone for her employer, the vampire Count Bathory. Unfortunately, agents of the Reich, including the ancient and powerful wizard called the Staff seek the book as well. This leads Magda on some chases in various places in Europe, but I can’t really give too many details without spoilers. While some of the middle travel sections felt a bit slow, the story as a whole was paced well, and never got boring, despite most of the book being a ‘fetchquest’. Also, as I’ve come ot expect from reading a lot of Dresden, (and it may be an urban fantasy thing) Magda does get beaten several times, and things don’t play out as you might expect. (And the story puts a new spin on what can happen to an urban fantasy protagonist who’s out of their league.) One last thing I will say though, is that things change by the end. If you tried to predict the ending based on the basic synopsis, you’d be wrong. I particularly liked that, seeing as I’ve been getting good at predicting how stories will go.
The History/The Magic: For this last section, I’ll talk a little bit about the magic, but more about the history of this time and its portrayal in Lady Lazarus. As I am a history major, with an interest in this time period, I feel that I should focus a bit on the history. Also the book is a historical urban fantasy, so it fits.
To start with the magic. The magic in Lady Lazarus is fairly low-key, and doesn’t get used all that often in everyday life, or even in the story. I feel that this fits fairly well with the historical setting, as larger displays of magic would more drastically effect the events. Magda has an ability that allows her to sort of draw information out of people by directly touching their mind, which she uses in her work for Bathory. She also knows rituals that can be used to summon spirits of the dead. As she is untrained, this is mostly the extent of her power early on, but later on she begins to learn new spells, (and the Hebrew language, which is the language in which her spells are meant to be spoken). Additionally, she has a power historic to her family line: the ability to come back from the dead. I don’t consider it a spoiler to say that this ability is used, because after all, seeing how often it’s mentioned in the book I’d have been upset if it was never utilized. Additionally, Magda can use the Book of Raziel to help with spellcraft.
Other magic includes that of the wizard Staff, which is similar in nature to Magda’s but with obvious differences. From a story perspective, however ,there isn’t much more to say about it. And finally we have the magical creatures. In this book we see vampires, werewolves, demons, and of course an angel. The vampire mythology used here is fairly simple, drawing on more classical vampire sources while adding some interesting twists on it. For example, these vampires don’t burn up in the sun, but get very injured by it and become weakened. Also it’s mentioned that most people turned into vampires don’t survive long due to overwhelming bloodlust, which is a neat idea. The werewolves, likewise, are done in a simple manner, being people who turn into wolf-creatures. Finally, demons draw on classic ideas of demons as well, being suitably hideous but with abilities to cover that up, and possession is a thing as well. All are used well, and there isn’t much more for me to say. More interesting are the allegiances of these creatures, but I don’t want to get too much into that here.
In conclusion, the magic is not particularly flashy, and used sparingly, which is fine. I don’t need every urban fantasy to be like The Dresden Files, with magic flying every which way.
Now for the history. As I mentioned when discussing the plot, the atmosphere of Europe just before World War II is well captured, particularly in Hungary, where most of the story takes place. (The short bit that took place in Vienna, already under Nazi control at the time of the story, was well done as well.) Hungary during the interwar period was in a very interesting place, which is why I became interested in writing about it myself. In the book you’ll hear a bit about the brief time during which communist revolutionaries took over post WWI. And there is more mention of the Hungarian government during the rest of this period, the Horthy regime, which came into power after helping force out the communists. Now, I feel that overall Ms. Lang represented history fairly, at least from the perspective of her protagonist, who is doubtless biased. [Warning: Slight history rant] My only concern re the history aspect is that the Horthy regime is being lumped in too much with fascism and the Hungarian fascist group, the Arrow Cross. Magda seems to consider him little more than Hitler’s lapdog, and an oppressive fascist. While his regime was certainly oppressive, having passed the first antisemitic laws in interwar Europe, it is also true that he quietly allowed most of these laws to not really be enforced after a while. Based on my own research, (and I can say this with some degree of expertise, as I wrote a paper on him that won a departmental award, and is too be published in a student run journal) Horthy was more an old-world style conservative monarchist, who detested the radical fascists almost as much as the communists, and though he initially was friendly toward Hitler, he soon came to be very wary of Hitler while also knowing that he couldn’t just reject him outright. During the war, he tried to broker a peace with the USSR, but the Germans reacted first and overthrew him. After the war, Hungary became communist, and Horthy labeled a fascist, because he was to the right. Now this isn’t to say that I believe Horthy was a hero, or some deeply misunderstood figure. I’m just looking at him through the lens of history, and things are far from as simple as people often will say. But in the end, I think the book does alright in this regard. I recall at least one part (though it might actually be in the second book, which I’m reading now) where it’s mentioned that Horthy doesn’t get along with the fascists. And again, Magda’s own opinions make sense, being a somewhat liberal-minded, Jewish girl. I’d just like to ensure that the complex history of interwar Hungary is not painted with too broad a brush.
One last thing I want to touch on before ending (this has probably been my longest post thus far) is a bit on the Book of Raziel, which as Ms. Lang explains in the companion piece, is a real thing in Jewish tradition. I actually had to check that fact myself, because I’ve grown up an observant Jew and never heard of it before. (It’s more used in the Hassidic community.) I really did like the way Jewish tradition and history was integrated into this book (angel with free will notwithstanding), and I really do appreciate that it taught me something new about my own tradition.
And I think I’ll stop here, having rambled long enough. In closing, this was a very entertaining book, both from a fantasy perspective and from a historical one. As I said in my first review here, reading is one of the best ways to become a better writer, and reviewing can give you some new perspective on a book that can be of help. And here, for me, it’s also almost research for a future project of my own, which I hope to write a bit about once I start the research in earnest.
So until next time, keep writing, keep reading, and check out Lady Lazarus!