Review: The City Beautiful

The City Beautiful

by Aden Polydoros

Inkyard Press

Category: Young Adult
Reviewer: A.R. Vishny

The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros is a YA historical fantasy set during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Alter is a young typesetter and recent immigrant to the United States, who is trying to save enough money to send for his mother and sister, who are still waiting back in Romania. His life is upended when his roommate, Yakov, is found dead on the premises of the World’s Fair and Alter becomes possessed by Yakov’s restless spirit as a dybbuk during tahara, the preparations for his burial. To free himself from the dybbuk and stop the steady stream of murders and disappearances of young Jewish men around the Fair, Alter must team up with the pickpocket ring-leader Frankie and the budding anarchist journalist Raizel to solve the murder mystery.

This book is an impressive feat of YA Jewish historical fantasy. Polydoros builds a rich world for his characters to inhabit and navigate, full of details on everything from food to clothing to the nuances of regional Yiddish accents. The story keeps pace and develops a compelling romance and mystery without sacrificing historical context. Most rewarding of all is the core cast of characters, whose struggles with belief, belonging, love, and ambition are fully realized and remain compelling through the course of the narrative.

This book is a strong contender for a Sydney Taylor. Almost every speaking character of significance is Jewish. The level of research and commitment to portraying Jewish life and customs in a particular historical moment is quite singular in the YA landscape. Turn-of-the-century Ashkenazic immigrant stories may be familiar territory for Jewish children’s literature, but queer dybbuk murder mysteries are not. The treatment of the history is fresh and atmospheric, and avoids the traditional tropes and cliches that come with tenement-era narratives.

Beyond being just positive, Polydoros’s book brings a genuine “cool” factor to his rendering of Ashkenazic Jewish history and Yiddishkeit. In The City Beautiful, traditional Jewish life and Ashkenazic customs are not something characters are trying to escape from, but are built into the plot in interesting, exciting ways. The Yiddish isn’t played for laughs, and the protagonists have the range to be both Jewishly-literate and capable of throwing a punch. The City Beautiful covers a range of Ashkenazic identities and relationships to language, religious observance, culture, and politics, and has a clear sense of how those are shaped by the specifics of one’s immigration story. Moreover, Alter’s sexuality, from his crush on Yakov to his past and potential future with Frankie, is handled in very moving, hopeful ways on the page.

This book is a must-buy, an essential addition to any Jewish library. 

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Reviewer A.R. Vishny is a writer, attorney, and occasional television extra based in NYC. Her work has appeared in Alma. Though books will always be her first love, she also has a thing for cake and period dramas, and can be found talking about all that and more at