Lady Lazarus is the first book in a trilogy, the Magda Lazarus Saga, by Michele Lang. The second book in this re-imagining of World War II, Dark Victory, will be released in 2011. Even though it is an account based on an alternate history involving vampires, angels, witches, and werewolves, it is also based on the author’s family history since her Jewish mother and grandparents are Holocaust survivors who lived in Hungary during this time. It also draws from the magical culture at the time and the Jewish Book of Raziel as Michele Lang discusses in a fascinating article she wrote for the Tor/Forge blog.
During the summer of 1939, Magda Lazarus lives in Budapest, Hungary, where she works for a vampire in order to support the only family she has left, her younger sister Gisele, and her best friend Eva. There have been rumors of an impending war, but the reality doesn’t really hit home until Gisele, who has the gift of prophecy as an ancestor of the Witch of Ein Dor, has a vision. In the future Gisele sees, millions of people are killed by the Nazis. Horrified, Gisele asks her sister Magda to do something about it; although Magda would like to deny her legacy, she has the stronger power as the eldest daughter of an eldest daughter in the Lazarus family.
Against her better judgment, Magda is convinced to summon the Witch of Ein Dor herself in an attempt to discover what they can do to prevent this ominous event from occurring. The Witch tells her the Jewish race will be eradicated, and there is nothing she do to change fate. After some more cajoling, she reveals there is one possibility although it is very dangerous – Magda can find The Book of Raziel and use its power. The future is so bleak, anything is worth trying so Magda embarks on a search for the legendary book of the Angel Raziel.
This has been a tough book for me to review (as evidenced by the fact that I finished it in the end of August/early September and am only reviewing it now). I had very mixed feelings about this one, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I liked the premise far more than the execution. It’s an alternate history featuring vampires, werewolves and the supernatural, which has been done to death recently, but I really liked the way that it was rooted in Jewish history and lore as well as its feminist leanings. Throughout the story, there is some mention about the Witch of Ein Dor being instrumental in the time of Saul and Solomon, and there’s also a very interesting story about the Book of Raziel and how it was actually given to Eve and passed down to her daughters. The power of the Lazarus heritage is similarly passed from mother to daughter, and there are some strong female characters. Magda is a reluctant heroine, but no one can fault her courage in the end, and Eva is a resilient protagonist as well. I really wanted to like this book because I loved the idea of it – basing it on the author’s family’s personal experience with the Holocaust, the mythological parts and the role of women throughout the ages and in the present.
In spite of these strengths, I found my interest waning about halfway through and it was a bit of a struggle to finish the book. While admirable as a character, Magda didn’t have enough depth to continue to be enjoyable to read about, and the romance between her and the angel Raziel was very trite. Her attraction to him made sense – he was supposed to be a gorgeous angel – but I never really understood what he saw in her. The romance was a bit quick and predictable, and I never really believed in them as a couple. The characterization in general was fairly flat and no one really came alive; they just had a few character traits.
The main reason I wanted to read this book was the first paragraph, which intrigued me:
I damned my soul in the summer of 1939. I did it for the noblest reasons, the best ones — to save the people I loved; to make a terrible wrong turn right. But still I am tormented by the thought that my sins overwhelmed my intentions and turned my noble sacrifices to dust even as I made them. Only time will tell if my desperate measures, in the end, were justified. [pp. 11]
This is a case where being mysterious did not pay off because my imagination was hoping for something truly horrible, a big moral dilemma, and I ended up feeling underwhelmed by how it actually played out. Plus the writing grated on me after a while. It is from the first person perspective, and a lot of the sentences started with “I.” It’s inevitable that this will happen sometimes, but it happened excessively and just started to seem like lazy writing. There are times when it really threw me out of the story because there was no reason for it, particularly when she told us “I watched” instead of just stating what she saw:
I watched a crow fly over the tracks to reach a cluster of his brethren waiting on the other side. [pp. 106]
Just say a crow flew, Magda. It goes without saying that you are watching it if you see it.
There were also some overly melodramatic statements and internal monologue that made me feel like I was reading an angsty 13 year old girl’s diary. The entire prologue was written in the same tone as that very first paragraph and occasionally there were more parts that were just trying too hard to sound theatrical.
Even though I loved the basis for Lady Lazarus – the Jewish history, the mythological stories about angels and Biblical tales, and the strong roles of female characters – I found I lost interest about halfway through and have no desire to continue to read the series. There’s a great foundation for a story, but the plot, the characters and the writing are not good enough to pull it off.
My Rating: 3.5/10
Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the publisher.