Joe Golem and the Drowning City Review
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One of the most magical things about books is their ability to transport readers to other places and other eras—to far-away lands and long-ago times. But sometimes, as in Joe Golem and the Drowning City, the illustrated novel by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden, a book can transport you to a place that never was.

Joe Golem and the Drowning City takes place in a gritty alternate reality—in a version of New York City’s Lower Manhattan that’s been flooded by thirty feet of water for fifty years. While normal, everyday life goes on in the rest of New York City, the resilient residents of Lower Manhattan have chosen to stay in their Drowning City and live whatever kind of life they can.

Fourteen-year-old Molly McHugh is one such resident. She spent most of her life on the run until she met Felix Orlov, a former conjuror who’s set up shop in an abandoned theater, living off his meager earnings as a medium. Felix took Molly in as his friend and assistant, so when something strange happens during one of his regular appointments and he’s taken away by monstrous men in gas masks, Molly sets out to save him with the help of a burly detective named Joe.

Through both words and pictures, Mignola and Golden create a thrilling world of boats and bridges suspended above an eerie kind of underwater urban graveyard. It’s a mystical, mechanized world, where the tough manage to survive in any way they can. Here, you’ll find characters who get by on their wits, their muscle, their magic, and even their knowledge of mechanics.

The tone, then, is fittingly dark—yet it’s written in an elegant, classic style that perfectly blends the sci-fi with the supernatural to create a cool steampunk adventure that’s appropriate for young adult readers. It’s the kind of novel that Charles Dickens might have written, had he been born a hundred years or so later.

Still, while the setting is intriguing and the characters are fascinating, the story seems to be missing something. The sparse, often abstract, illustrations don’t really bring the story to life—and some of the characters simply feel like alluring shadows. Each one seems to have an important past—a captivating story to tell—but the stories are often glossed over in an attempt to push the action along. As a result, readers may be left wanting to know more about Felix’s history—or about characters like Simon Church and Dr. Cocteau. These are strange stories from a strange world—and a little more development would have been helpful.

In the end, though, Joe Golem and the Drowning City manages to take readers on a mesmerizing trip to an unimaginable world: a kind of gritty, poverty-stricken Venice. And that darkly magical setting will help you overlook some of the story’s shortcomings.

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