Today is my stop on the blog tour for historical fantasy The Book of Uriel by Elyse Hoffman, organised by Dave from The Write Reads. Thank you so much for having me along on the tour for this intriguing and very different book.
The Book of Uriel by Elyse Hoffman
Length: 373 Pages
Publication date: 26th January 2021
In the fires of World War II, a child must save his people from darkness…
Ten-year-old Uriel has always been an outcast. Born mute in a Jewish village known for its choir, he escapes into old stories of his people, stories of angels and monsters. But when the fires of the Holocaust consume his village, he learns that the stories he writes in his golden notebook are terrifyingly real.
In the aftermath of the attack, Uriel is taken in by Uwe, a kind-hearted linguist forced to work for the commander of the local Nazi Police, the affably brutal Major Brandt. Uwe wants to keep Uriel safe, but Uriel can’t stay hidden. The angels of his tales have come to him with a dire message: Michael, guardian angel of the Jewish people, is missing. Without their angel, the Jewish people are doomed, and Michael’s angelic brethren cannot search for him in the lands corrupted by Nazi evil.
With the lives of millions at stake, Uriel must find Michael and free him from the clutches of the Angel of Death…even if that means putting Uwe in mortal danger.
The Book of Uriel is a heartbreaking blend of historical fiction and Jewish folklore that will enthrall fans of The Book Thief and The World That We Knew.
I was sent a digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Dave from the Write Reads and the author, Elyse Hoffman.
The Book of Uriel is a powerful and interesting story set during the Nazi occupation of Poland.
I must admit my interest regarding this book was piqued by the thought of archangels and Nazis in the same book. I was intrigued by how the author would manage to treat such a historical evil as Nazism in a fantasy book. I am guessing that Hoffman is Jewish herself, as there is a wealth of knowledge in this book about the religious practices and lore of Judaism, which I found highly interesting and educational.
There are two main characters who have very different and yet intertwined story arcs.
Uwe Litten, a German translator, is brought to Poland by the Nazis to help translate the words of their Polish prisoners and to try and find out information regarding the whereabouts of any hiding Jews as they strive to make the country “Judenfrei” burning down Jewish villages and shooting any Jews they find along the way. The ones who are still useful get sent to work camps and the not so useful people are the victims of “resettlement” i.e. shot. Amongst all of this brutality, Uwe is a gentle soul, shocked and horrified by what he sees and unable to comprehend that such evil people exist. On his first outing with Major Brandt, who he is working for, he witnesses the aftermath of the burning of a village – piles of dead bodies including a small ten-year-old boy, Uriel. Uriel is clasping a golden notebook to his heart and Uwe takes this from him, thinking he would like to know more about the poor boy who reminds him of his son back at home.
The parts of the book which focus on Uwe’s story are not an easy read by any means. The Holocaust is in full swing and Uwe is witness to Major Brandt torturing Jewish prisoners and ordering his soldiers to shoot others in the neck so there is less gory mess than if they are shot in the head. This book could be a shocking eye-opener for readers unfamiliar with the history regarding the Nazis and Jews during this time and the pogroms which took place.
No sooner have Uwe and Major Brandt left the village and driven to the place where the Major lives, than Uriel wakes up and finds his precious notebook missing. Uwe will also live in the Major’s house for the duration of the ethnic cleansing they are undertaking. At this point Uriel is approached by the Archangel Gabriel and two other angels. They inform him that the guardian angel of the Jewish people, Michael, has been kidnapped by the Angel of Death, Samael, and that Uriel, who is mute, may be the only person who can help locate and free him. He gives Uriel a sacred necklace which allows only good-hearted people such as Uwe to see Uriel while he is wearing it. In the woods Uriel encounters Samael who offers to set free the archangel Michael if Uriel completes a set of five increasingly difficult tasks for him. These tasks involve items from Jewish folklore including a lion pelt owned by strongman Sampson, the prophet Elijah’s cloak, David’s harp and mythical creatures, the Akha, a massive serpent and the Shamir, who can cut through rocks with its teeth.
Samael is a terrifying and threatening character, but is surprised by how hard it is for him to dissuade Uriel from his cause:
“Never turn your back on the Angel of Death”Samael
Uriel follows the car tracks to the Major’s house, thinking the angel most likely will be imprisoned within, and is spotted by Uwe.
From this point the two characters’ stories become intertwined. Uwe decides to hide Uriel in his bedroom, not realising no one else can see the boy. The two characters leave each day to carry out their respective tasks and return to the room each night where they grow increasingly fond of one another. Their relationship was incredibly heart-warming and one of the main reasons I enjoyed this story.
The fantasy elements of Uriel’s story arc rely heavily on Jewish folklore and made the two separate arcs seem almost as if they belonged in different books, being so different in tone and genre.
“Uriel” is Hebrew for “Light of God” and he is a positive, hopeful and very pious child who loves to write stories in his notebook, either original stories he wrote himself or stories his Papa used to tell him. The stories are peppered throughout the book, which I thought was a lovely touch. Through these stories which occasionally feel more like flashbacks than stories, we learn more about Uriel’s life in the village of Zingdorf, the role of the village matchmaker, the lamplighter who gets needlessly murdered one evening, and more detail of what happened on the night Uriel’s village was burned. Poor mute Uriel has seen far more than his fair share of horrific occurrences in his short life.
As Uwe discovers more and more truth of what the Nazis are doing to the Jews he becomes determined to help the Jews hiding in the forest by searching for a cache of weapons and uniting the Jewish survivors with the partisan Polish who are also hiding out in the forest. This element of the story seemed a little far-fetched to me. The Jewish survivors had suffered enormously at the hands of the Polish and we are told the gruesome story of what happened to their leader’s wife at the hands of the Polish. I found it difficult to believe that he would be able to set this aside and join forces with them in order to overcome the local Nazis. I also found it hard to believe the partisan Poles would be able to set aside their hatred of the Jews so easily, just because Uwe reasoned with them:
“The Germans got this far because of people like you. If all of you had helped the Jews instead of killing them or looking the other way, you would have made the Germans’ jobs all the harder. Instead, people like you helped them destroy villages, and now their work is almost done. They only have a few villages left…”Uwe Litten
Another issue I had with the story was that I do not feel that Uwe would have survived living with the brutal and violent Major once he started to defy him and question his practices of torturing and killing the Jews. I can only presume that he was too useful to Brandt as a translator and that is what kept him alive, but I am sure in reality they would have got rid of him and found a replacement. I also thought the frequent use of “Germans” rather than “Nazis” was problematic. As we saw from Uwe, there were many Germans who would not have acted like Major Brandt during the war. It was the Nazis who believed fanatically in a “Judenfrei” world.
On the whole I enjoyed The Book of Uriel and would recommend it to people who like historical fantasy and are not put off by a realistic description of the plight of the Jewish people during World War II.
About the Author
Elyse Hoffman strives to tell historical tales with new twists: she loves to meld WWII and Jewish history with fantasy, folklore, and the paranormal. She has written six works of Holocaust historical fiction: the five books of The Barracks of the Holocaust and The Book of Uriel.