Earthquakes and flooding have turned lower Manhattan into a drowning city. 50 years later a new menace threatens to take what remains. At the center of this cosmic event is a 14 year old girl and her caretaker, a 20s era parlor magician.
Author Christopher Golden and artist Mike Mignola reunite for this tale of fate, destiny, and tentacles. On the surface, the story has all the hallmarks we’ve come to expect from this teaming — lovecraft + steampunk + folklore + pulp. On the surface.
This alternate reality is introduced to us through the characters of Molly McHugh, a 14 year old runaway and her current landlord — the world weary Felix Orlov. Felix has taken Molly in to his home after a chance encounter on the mean waterways of what was formerly Manhattan.
Before the flood, Felix was a magician and illusionist. Now he keeps himself (and Molly) afloat by selling his services as a psychic/medium. An ability that on this very day will forever change his and her future. It’s a touching and melancholy opening to a story that quickly turns into a harrowing foot chase over the rooftops and waterways of this decaying city. The story promises action and adventure, and the unknown. Then it slows to a screeching halt.
Molly meets Joe, the namesake of the books title then the narrative slows down a great deal as Golden introduces us to new characters and begins to setup the rest of this tale. For some this is where the story might get a little too plodding. This slowdown continues for much of the book and really only picks up pace again near the end.
In between we’re treated to moments of classic Golden/Mignola. Eastern European witch hunts, Whitechapel style murder mysteries, and strange and awe-inspiring magical instruments, but all in tiny bite sizes. The equivalent of an aperitif. The problem of course is that there’s no meal afterwards. In the end, the book’s combination of slow pacing and understated action set pieces may leave some wanting.
The Lord had not seen fit to make him handsome; Joe looked like a prizefighter who’d spent a career throwing punches a second slower than the other guy.
The quality of writing itself is top notch as we’ve come to expect from Golden and the world Mignola dreamt up so many years ago — this predates Hellboy, if I recall — is a scary and lonely place to find oneself. Especially scary if you’re an underage kid forced to fend for yourself. In fact, the pervasive dark tones of the story may surprise some readers. You’ll wonder all the way to the end if there’s any upside for our protagonists.
Readers who’ve experienced Golden’s other Mignola book Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and The Vampire will recall the strong sense of atmosphere created by the writer. The sense of dread worked excellently in that book, a story about war and death and vampire killing. For Joe Golem, you couldn’t help but feel like that threw the balance off. The book’s tone only really felt natural when the character of Joe was punching things. The trouble is that for a book titled Joe Golem, the character plays very little total page time. When he does, he’s usually in the background with the action centered on the Molly character.
Before I get beaten up here. Let me clarify that there are a couple big action sequences in the book. They’re not written big however. For lack of a better way to put it, the action is big with a small feel. On paper, big things are happening, but the focus/viewpoint is very narrow. Maybe it’s the fact that the biggest action scenes seem to only have been witnessed by our central characters, but it effectively causes the reader to feel like things aren’t as big as they actually are. The scene depicted on the book cover takes place at the end of the book. It’s the big finale, but as written it might as well have been streamers falling from a chandelier. That’s not a knock on Chris’ writing. The scene is fairly descriptive, but the lack of an outside reaction (outside of our characters) makes it feel more personal and not quite as grand as it actually is.
Joe Golem is a good book, but could have been great. It wasn’t one big thing that caused it to falter, but a few small almost imperceptible things. In spite of this, I still find it hard not to recommend the book to people. It’s a good read to be sure. I merely want to temper expectations. Know what you’re in for and you’ll come out enjoying the piece. If you’re expecting a Hellboy style brawler, you’ll likely leave wanting.
If you do happen to enjoy this book, you might be interested to know that there’s a short story prequel in ebook form titled Joe Golem and the Copper Girl.
B grade overall for a solid book, though existing Golden/Mignola readers should expect more talking and less punching from a book called Joe Golem.