Chris Moriarty's The Inquisitor's Apprentice is the first volume in a fantastic new historical young adult series that takes place in a turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York where magic is the key to power and the infamous robber-barons of the age have cornered the market on enchantment and use their power to deprive hardworking poor immigrants of their self-reliance. Sasha Kessler is the 13-year-old hero of the tale, a tenement-dwelling kid who lives with his hardworking parents, his anarchist-wiccan actor uncle, his sister, and his Kabbalist rabbi grandfather. On the other side of their one-room flat live a married couple who sew shirtwaists with every hour they can wring from their days, saving to bring their family over from the pogroms in the old country.
Sasha's life is upended one day when he finds that he can see magic, and has the misfortune to demonstrate this ability in front of a crowd at a furtive magic Jewish bakery, in full sight of an Inquistor, one of the special police officers charged with regulating magic in New York. In short order, Sasha is inducted into the ranks of the Inquisitors, assigned to apprentice to the enigmatic and notorious Inspector Wolf, along with his co-apprentice, a girl from the famous society family, the Astrals (a pun on the Astors).
So begins Sasha's tale, which takes him on the trail of a dybbuk that tried to assassinate Thomas Edison while the inventor was visiting JP Morgaunt, the robber baron who has taken control of New York's magical world. This trail leads through the fraught racial relations in New York, to kung-fu lessons with the Immortals who run Chinatown, to Coney Island and Harry Houdini, and a slew of characters and settings that are marvellously remade as loci of magic and mystery.
Moriarty's plotting is just fantastic, and the story itself manages to tackle difficult issues of race and class and politics without ever slowing down. Period ink illustrations by Mark Edward Geyer complete the package, giving the whole thing a deceptively lightweight, pulpy feel. It's a great magic trick, a piece of misdirection that makes a book that's full of weighty material zip along like a quick adventure tale. This is one of those incredibly promising first volumes that makes you hope that the writer's got plenty more where it came from.