In a new YA novel that draws heavily from Jewish folklore and history, Helaine Becker reveals a world in which cultural tensions are intentionally heightened by a sadistic ruler bent on wiping out a segment of society.
The Stoons are a group of people who live in a walled area (nicknamed “the Stew”) on the fringes of the city of Gottika. Their lives are heavily restricted – they have a curfew, cannot own land, and must wear scarlet beretes (hats) whenever they leave their homes. Count Pol, the ruler of their jurisdiction, is set on destroying the Stoons, and not even a powerful queen can stop him. Fed up with their ill treatment, Stoon elder Rob-Judah uses magic to conjure a servant from clay (based on the golem of Jewish folklore) to protect his people against attacks. But the Stoons are quickly blamed when children begin disappearing and turning up dead. In an effort to bring the truth to light, long-buried secrets are revealed, and a young character is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good of all.
With comics-style illustrations appearing throughout, the book is a bit of a hybrid of straight prose and graphic novel. The illustrations carry the narrative forward, sometimes without dialogue. This technique forces the reader to slow down and think about the significance of each image.
The story bears a close resemblance to the restrictions and vilification that Jewish citizens faced during Hitler’s rule. Becker presents the harsh treatment of an ethnic group in a way children will be able to understand and question. There are also a number of references to religion that offer opportunities for discussion (for example, the creation of a man from clay mentions the Bible verse that describes God creating man from dust). While Gottika is an interesting book, combining magic, religion, and steampunk elements (the Count’s coach is pulled by mechanical metal horses, for instance), some of its themes, language, and references may be too sophisticated for younger middle-grade readers.