Book Review: Joe Golem and the Drowning City by Christopher Golden (Illustrated by Mike Mignola)

I can easily get “lost” in a store with a book section (woe to the soul that accompanies me to a book store or, worst, library). There you’ll find me gazing at book covers, reading enticing blurbs, and sampling the first pages (okay, first CHAPTER) of an interesting novel.

The aisle where I found Joe Golem and the Drowning City, written by Christopher Golden and illustrated by Mike Mignola, looked like the aftermath of a Black Friday sale. Books were pulled from their proper places and thrown on shelves where they didn’t belong (I found Fifty Shades of Gray in the middle grade section). I unearthed Joe Golem and the Drowning City from a pile of books in the romance section and bought it.

I really intended to read it, but the spring semester started and…you know how that song and dance goes. I picked it up in June (or July) and finished it in three days!

It’s an amazing read filled with occultists, steampunk machinery, otherworldly gods, and dark illustrations to boot.

Synopsis

The inhabitants of the “Drowning City,” formally Lower Manhattan before the sea flooded the streets in 1925, do whatever they can to survive the city’s watery slums. Molly McHugh use to be just like them. She lived a life of fear and poverty until Orlov the Conjurer, a powerful magician hindered by age, pulled her from the streets and employed her as his assistant.

Things change when Orlov is abducted and his capturers try to kill Molly. She runs into the mysterious detective, Joe Golem, who promises to help save Orlov.

But neither are prepared for the world that lies ahead of them.

Blurb from Amazon:

In 1925, earthquakes and a rising sea level left Lower Manhattan submerged under more than thirty feet of water, so that its residents began to call it the Drowning City. Those unwilling to abandon their homes created a new life on streets turned to canals and in buildings whose first three stories were underwater. Fifty years have passed since then, and the Drowning City is full of scavengers and water rats, poor people trying to eke out an existence, and those too proud or stubborn to be defeated by circumstance.

 

Among them are fourteen-year-old Molly McHugh and her friend and employer, Felix Orlov. Once upon a time Orlov the Conjurer was a celebrated stage magician, but now he is an old man, a psychic medium, contacting the spirits of the departed for the grieving loved ones left behind. When a seance goes horribly wrong, Felix Orlov is abducted by strange men wearing gas masks and rubber suits, and Molly soon finds herself on the run.

 

Her flight will lead her into the company of a mysterious man, and his stalwart sidekick, Joe Golem, whose own past is a mystery to him, but who walks his own dreams as a man of stone and clay, brought to life for the sole purpose of hunting witches.

My Overall Thoughts

Since I respect those who haven’t read the book, spoiler text will be in GREEN from this point forward.

The bleak atmosphere of the Drowning City drew me in. Its inhabitants occupy the tops of skyscrapers and use makeshift bridges to get around. Beat-up boats transverse waterways that snake around abandoned buildings. To make matters worst, those who live in the city are essentially abandoned because no one is willing to help them rebuild.

There’s also a supernatural element with staeampunk undertones that makes the setting even more wild: Church (Joe’s partner) uses alchemy and a mechanical heart to prolong his life, Joe is an ancient stone golem meant to protect the world from witches, and Orlov is the son of an interdimensional god.

In my opinion, the interior format of the print book is amazing. It’s about the size of an adult coloring book with Mike Mignola’s shadow-heavy illustrations displayed in the margins. They aren’t prominent (there’s a few full page illustrations), but they’re detailed enough to pull you further into the story. You may be more familiar with Mignola’s work than you think, since he wrote and illustrated Hellboy (check out his work here).

The characters were also interesting; however, I didn’t like Molly very much. She wasn’t a bad character: she’s decisive and abrasive (definitely not a damsel in distress). The only problem is that she’s a normal character amongst extraordinary ones (Joe is an ancient golem, Orlov is a magician, and Church is basically a cyborg).

Even the antagonist was oddly charming. He has this jolly santa clause vibe…right up to the moment when he starts explaining his evil plan to open a up a parallel dimension that’ll throw the world into eternal damnation.

Things I loved!

The illustrations! Beautiful.

Joe’s gruff, stoic, attitude.

The scene where Joe saved Molly from the possessed tree that tried to eat her.

The part where Orlov finally becomes the freakish god he’s destined to be in the climax of the story. His metamorphoses causes tsunamis that ruin upper Manhattan (where the wealthy live) and a parallel dimension to bleed into our world. It’s a touching moment because Orlov is confused and doesn’t want to be this thing he’s becoming. At the same time, he has to leave to the parallel dimension or risk destroying the world Molly lives in. No matter which decision he chooses, Molly will be left alone (so sad).

Things I Tolerated.

I’m not kidding when I say this book was awesome. I also don’t finish books that I don’t like (and I finished this in three days!). With that said, there were a few places in the book that were a bit drawn out. The scene with Molly being chased by the gas man for example, could have been shorter.

The story’s climax was spectacular, but I was a bummed when Joe bailed at the end. When Molly asked where he was going, he simply told her he was going to hunt witches (keep in mind that Joe’s witch hunting days were over centuries ago…he just doesn’t remember). Molly didn’t want him to leave just as much as I didn’t, but he did anyway. Boo! I can’t say this is a bad thing, it’s actually good writing on Golden’s part. Makes me want to buy the sequel.

My Recommendations

If you’re someone who likes steampunk, supernatural thrillers (bordering on occult), or you’re a fan of the Hellboy series, then you may just like this one.

Links:

Christopher Golden’s Website

Mike Mignola’s Website

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