A Jewish Gothic Family Saga: A Review of Emily Bergslien and Kat Weaver’s Uncommon Charm
Valerie Estelle Frankel
Uncommon Charm, Emily Bergslien & Kat Weaver. Neon Hemlock, May 2022.
Besides being clever and punchy, recent fantasy has been light and snappy. Novellas and novelettes are filling the shelves and entertaining with quick, quirky reads (albeit with diverse characters and considerations of historical stigma). After thousands of World War II novels and Regency fantasies, less-popular eras are finally popping up everywhere.
In line with these trends, Emily Bergslien and Kat Weaver’s Uncommon Charm, first in Neon Hemlock’s 2022 novellas, follows the teen heiress Julia Selwyn-Stirling, who’s been expelled from school for reasons involving squabbles with her girlfriend and getting caught with a flask of gin during math class. Julia’s mother has recently adopted Simon Wolf—poor, Jewish, and illegitimate, but who’s just manifested magical powers. Since he can see ghosts, Julia eagerly enlists him to unravel the family secrets.
It opens with “a gloomy November sky, a gloomy November street, and a gloomy November of a boy.” Set in 1925, the novella has a gothic ambiance powered by an array of classic elements: a banished child, cryptic magic, creaky floorboards, and family mysteries. Everywhere are ancient portraits, ancient fixtures, and the threat of ancient spiders in their grandfather’s old Victorian house. One might call it a drawing room mystery, though one free of clichés. The recent war adds yet more ghostliness, as the family earldom has been doomed by the many deaths caused by the devastating conflict. In their in-between age of uncertainty, too young for marriage and adult responsibility, the young heroes are clearly caught in the societal shift into modernity, as teens today may feel.
The mystery involved here is subtle and understated, blended with months of everyday shenanigans, but in a book this short, it moves along. Unsurprising for a novella, the magic here is a soft system—not detailed exactly, but used to advance the plot and social dynamics within Julia and Simon’s complicated family. Of course, magic has a great cost, as does exposing the family secrets.
It’s quite short—a ninety-four-page novella. The light, simple plot and a lack of romance in the immediate story make this feel youthful, even more of a children’s adventure. Its theme of Simon the outsider being welcomed likewise seems designed to reach out to a young audience. Eager, talkative Julia is fun and nuanced too. She channels her energy into diverse passions like her detective novels, radio, fencing, and shopping. Her magical mother encrypts Tennyson poems (more macabre imagery) for her to decode. The characters are engaging with their many worries and quirks. They joke and enjoy their investigation while dropping olives on the adults from the balcony and holding a spooky seance. Julia notes that Simon is definitively a boy, “only twenty years old to my sixteen.” Her identifying him not only as a boy but a “duckling” and leading him on a mischievous adventure adds to the youthful, whimsical feel.
Today’s authors, especially for young readers, are encouraged to explore diverse cultures, especially their own. In fact, Bergslien describes herself on Goodreads as “a bookseller, a Jew in progress, and literally a wizard.” Accordingly, Simon’s background is addressed respectfully and authentically—he wanted to be a rabbi before the arrival of his magic, and he reminisces over the family holidays he’s missing. He also boxes, subverting his classic bookish image. Meanwhile, he takes breaks from his investigations with Julia to go home for Shabbat and Hannukah. His mother’s lesbian (and atheist) status has also made a rift in his side of the family, a conflict he struggles to repair. Once again, the married author pair write from personal experience.
Aside from being an outsider in many ways, Simon brings Jewish morality and philosophy to the story, making his background relevant to their daily lives beyond a consideration of serving breakfast sausage. He’s consulted rabbis on magic and gotten different responses, in a comment that nods to both Jewish fantasy’s long history and religious prohibitions. He considers his faith inseparable from his magic, an interesting twist in today’s highly secular society. (While Jewish fantasy for young people is booming, much of it features characters who celebrate holidays but are never seen praying and/or show no interest in Judaism’s spiritual aspects.) Simon’s a quiet geek, but a likeable one. Using his scholarship and faith, he speculates on why it’s forbidden to summon spirits and what effect this has on them. Julia simplifies this, commenting, “You’re scared of talking to ghosts because you’re scared of talking to everyone.” This is a valid point too, one that suggests a neurodivergent reading of his character.
All in all, it’s a light quick read with charming characters to carry readers along. Unlike medieval or even Victorian settings, the Interwar Period is a relatively under-explored backdrop for modern fantasy. The few available tend to be more mature, like Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic adventures, Speak Easy by Catherynne Valente, or the Fantastic Beasts franchise. All touch on organized crime and abuse of power, leaving the heroes in a frustrating struggle for autonomy. Uncommon Charm, besides being younger, is more lighthearted with privilege, autonomy, and agency for the young protagonists. It’s an unusual era for modern fantasy, and a setting that delves into society’s treatment of LGBTQ people a century in the past. The book may be short, but its considerations of human nature, philosophy, and magic—and the weight of family secrets—give it fascinating nuance. As the branches of Simon and Julia’s family clash, Uncommon Charm also includes far more diversity than many fictional accounts of period London include. While it may skim lightly over deep societal issues, Uncommon Charm still asks big questions on who our society values, and what price protecting the family secrets may entail.
Valerie Estelle Frankel has won a Dream Realm Award, an Indie Excellence Award, and a USA Book News National Best Book Award for her Henry Potty parodies. She’s the author of over 80 books on pop culture, including Hunting for Meaning in The Mandalorian; Inside the Captain Marvel Film; and Who Tells Your Story? History, Pop Culture, and Hidden Meanings in the Musical Phenomenon Hamilton. Her Chelm for the Holidays (2019) was a PJ Library book, and now she’s the editor of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy, publishing an academic series that begins with Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy through 1945. You can find her on Twitter and Medium.
This review was commissioned by an emailed pitch after the title was listed as available for review. ARB editor Misha Grifka Wander is acquainted with one of the authors of the title under review. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and Misha Grifka Wander. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.