The Red Magician: A moving story about the Holocaust

The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein

The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsWinner of the National Book Award, Lisa Goldstein’s The Red Magician (1982) is such an unusual fantasy novel. I read it because Tantor Audio has just released the first audio edition of the book.

As the story begins, a young girl named Kisci is growing up in a small, isolated Jewish community in Eastern Europe. Her family’s rabbi is visiting Kisci’s home and expressing his displeasure at the way Kisci’s school is teaching Hebrew as if it were a common language. When Kisci’s father refuses to obey the rabbi’s command to remove his children from the school, the rabbi, who has some magical abilities, sets a curse on the school and its students’ families.

Soon after, a visitor named Voros appears in the village and Kisci’s family extends their hospitality. Kisci is fascinated by this young man who is well-travelled, is concerned about inauspicious events happening outside the village, and seems to have some magical abilities of his own.

The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsWhen the rabbi refuses to believe the ominous tidings that Voros brings to the village, and when Voros lifts the rabbi’s curse, they become enemies and Voros is forced to leave town. But Kisci can’t stop thinking about him and what might be happening in the outside world. Though her rabbi and neighbors prefer to ignore the threat, eventually it arrives in their own village anyway.

The Red Magician is so unusual because it intertwines three types of stories that don’t feel like they belong together: a typical fantasy story focusing on a battle between two magicians, traditional Jewish tales, and a historical account of the Holocaust.

I found it chilling. For most of the story there is a sense of impending doom as we realize that this little isolated Jewish community is led by a man who will not accept outside news sources and is not warning his followers of the trouble to come. Then, later, there is the gruesome subject matter which we view from the perspective of a young Jewish woman.

Though most of the story, including the most horrible moments, are told in a matter-of-fact, almost detached, style, The Red Magician is a moving tale that forces us to look real evil (not fantasy evil) full in the face. It explores other aspects of the human heart, too, including our tendency to blame others for our mistakes, survivor’s guilt, and hope.

I wasn’t crazy about the audio version of The Red Magician which was read by Elizabeth Wiley. Though she’s a good story teller, some of her voices were cartoonish which, in my opinion, took away some of this story’s gravitas.

Published in 1983. Audio version published in 2019. Winner of the National Book Award: In the shadow of the Holocaust, a young girl discovers the power of magic. In the schoolroom of a simple European village, Kicsi spends her days dreaming of the lands beyond the mountains: Paris and New York, Arabia, and Shanghai. When the local rabbi curses Kicsi’s school for teaching lessons in Hebrew, the holy tongue, the possibility of adventure seems further away than ever. But when a mysterious stranger appears telling stories of far-off lands, Kicsi feels the world within her grasp. His name is Vörös, and he is a magician’s assistant who seems to have powers all his own. There is darkness growing at the edge of the village – a darkness far blacker than any rabbi’s curse. Vörös warns of the Nazi threat, but only Kicsi hears what he says. As evil consumes a continent, Vörös will teach Kicsi that sometimes the magician’s greatest trick is survival.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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One comment

  1. Kelly Lasiter /

    This sounds interesting! I’ll be reviewing Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose soon, which deals with some of the same issues.

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