Extraordinary, by Nancy Werlin

I’ve been tearing through books brought back from Vermont and New York at a cheerful clip, soaking up story after a stretch during which I hadn’t been reading as much as usual. And I just finished Nancy Werlin’s Extraordinary, which I’d been meaning to read for ages, and found myself wanting to talk about it.

This is a book about Faerie, and about mortals making bargains with Faerie. Mortals who happen to be Jewish–which made reading this, as a Jewish fantasy writer who also writes about Faerie, very interesting indeed. I recently spoke with another Jewish writer who said she grew up with the unspoken assumption that fantasy was, well, a gentile genre, little to do with her. This startled me at the time–I’ve always felt like I was so very at home when reading fantasy (though it does give context to other discussions I’ve had through the years)–but as I read Extraordinary, I found myself thinking about how being Jewish and being drawn to Faerie don’t really mostly intersect. They’re just … in two different, mostly non-intersecting boxes for me.

And maybe that’s an internal as well as external thing, because I found myself reading this book differently as YA-fantasy-reader me and Jewish me, or maybe just noticing different things as each.

*** Spoilers from here on out, mild at first, growing stronger. ***

Here’s what YA fantasy reader me wants to say about this book:

I loved this book. It’s about the nature of faerie, but more than that, it’s about the friendships among women, and their power. Because it’s faerie-born Mallory who leaves her world in hopes of luring human-born Phoebe into fulfilling the terms of a bargain made by her ancestor, Mayer Rothschild (patriarch of the historical Rothschilds, though Phoebe and her mother are invented)–a bargain upon which the survival of Faerie depends. Only something unexpected happens: Mallory and Phoebe become friends, real, genuine friends.

Eventually, Mallory’s brother, Ryland, shows up to finish the job Mallory is flinching from. Using Faerie glamour and Phoebe’s own insecurities, he manipulates her into believing in her own worthlessness, which is necessary for the bargain to be seen through.

And there may be magic, but everything Ryland does plays off of the ways in which real human girls and women are manipulated by bad relationships all the time: the isolation from friends and family, the ceasing to believe one matters. At a glance the book’s packaging may make Ryland seem like just another dreamy compelling paranormal hero, but the reality being manipulated and controlled, with or without glamour–is not dreamy, but dangerous. And in the end, it takes isolating Phoebe not only from Mallory (something Mallory reluctantly helps Ryland with), but also isolating Phoebe from her powerful mother (did I mention this book also has a strong mother-daughter relationship?) to do this.

But the best-friend bond between Mallory and Phoebe isn’t gone entirely, and it helps save Phoebe, in the end–acting in equal parts with Phoebe’s finding, and acting on, her own sense of extra-ordinariness.

How could I not love this book? It hits so many of my buttons, and does it against a backdrop of the Faerie realm.

And here’s what Jewish me wants to save about this book:

This book made me startlingly … uneasy. On several fronts, but most of all on the front of the nature of the sacrifice. Because of course, in faerie lore, when you want a human sacrifice, what you want is a blood sacrifice, for the land. And 250 years before Phoebe was born, Mayer agreed to such a sacrifice, the sacrifice of a future daughter in order to secure the future and survival of his family and descendants. He may not have expected that any daughter would ever meet the conditions of the sacrifice, and so that all would be well. He may not have understood the price to Faerie, if the conditions were not met.

But still. Well. Judaism and blood sacrifice interact uncomfortably in the same book. Because one of the first things Judaism prohibited was human sacrifice, and because nonetheless Jews have been accused, through history, of taking part in same. Because every Rosh Hashanah, even if we’re inconsistent about our religious practice the rest of the year, Jews hear the story of how Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son for the sake of his people, and of how close he came to going through with this before God told him, no, you’re not supposed to do that after all.

I’ve heard it suggested that Abraham only went ahead with the sacrifice because he knew God would stop him. It could be argued Mayer only went ahead because he thought he knew the same thing. But I’ve never accepted that argument for the Abraham and Isaac’s story, and I’m not sure I accept it for Mayer’s. Surely he had to know there was an outside chance, at least, that the bargain would be fulfilled.

Mayer starts of as a character who accepts much of the rest of what’s considered conventionally Jewish–including a certain fatalism about fate, which also made me uneasy, because I’m not sure Jews have accepted that fatalism through history quite as readily as it might first seem. But if he did accept that–well, he surely would have internalized the so very not-Jewishness of human sacrifice, too. It’s a defining part of the Jewish story.

I can’t tell if this uneasy intersection is in the story deliberately or not. Either way, uneasy as it is, it did get me thinking. Because I knew that Faerie stories could be about sacrificing humans for the sake of the land. And I knew how firmly opposed to human sacrifice Jewish stories were and are. But I’d never put these two things together before.

I feel like a need to keep thinking about this. Being given something to think about by a story is not a bad thing.

So I enjoyed Extraordinary with both hats on, but in very different ways. Fantasy reader me enjoyed it with the sort of abandon of finding a book that engages with so many of the issues I’m engaged with. Jewish reader me enjoyed it in a more thoughtful and troubled way–the sort of way that makes me want to think a bit more and argue with the story a bit more (because Jews have a tradition of arguing with our stories, and always have), and to not draw any firm conclusions just yet.

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