The Inquisitor's Apprentice, by Chris Moriarty (Harcourt Children's Books, 2011, upper middle grade)
In an alternate late 19th-century New York, the tenements are packed with magic-using immigrants, each ethnic group with its own flavour of spellworking. 13 year old Sacha has grown up in a Jewish neighborhood taking the local magic for granted--like Mrs. Lassky's bakery, where customers can buy a mother-in-latke ("you pick the perfect son-in-law, we do the rest!") or "deliciously efficacious knishes....guaranteed to get any girl married within the year."
But in Sacha's New York, practicing magic is against the law--the wealthy few make no profit from what they can't control. And so the NYPD includes Inquisitors--policemen whose job it is to solve magical crimes. When Sacha reveals that he can see it when people work magic, Inspector Wolf takes him on as an apprentice Inquisitor.
Now Sacha and fellow apprentice Lily Astral (of the fabulously wealthy Astral family), are following Wolf through the city as he tries to solve what could be his most important case yet. Someone is trying to kill Thomas Edison....and there are even darker machinations at work, as capitalism and magic clash!
I utterly loved Moriarty's magical New York, the best magical New York I've ever read. I loved the details of how each ethnic group has its own brand of magic, I loved the fun Moriarty had with his rich families (John Pierpont Morgan becomes J.P. Morgaunt, owner of the Pentacle Shirtwaist Factory), and Andrew Carbuncle write a best-selling memoir, Wealth Without Magic. And I loved seeing Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, and Harry Houdini in this strange setting!
I adored Inspector Wolf. He reminded me a bit of Lord Peter Whimsey, crossed with Howl, with a dash of Eugenides, mainly because he is very, very good at not revealing all that is going on inside his brilliant mind. Although, looking back at his description, none of them (especially Lord Peter) would be as sloppy:
".... he seemed to go to great lengths to be as unglamorous and unmagical as possible. His long, lanky legs were encased in baggy trousers that had never seen the inside of a tailor's shop, let alone a fitting spell. His jacket hung off his bony shoulder like a scarecrow's sack. His hair looked like it hadn't been brushed for weeks. His spectacles were covered with smudges and fingerprints. And his dishwater-gray eyes wore a sleepy, absentminded look that seemed to say Wolf was still waiting for the day to bring him something worth waking up for.
As far as Sacha could tell, the only remotely interesting thing about Maximillian Wolf was the extraordinary collection of food stains on his tie."
I also enjoyed the unlikely friendship that grew (slowly, and with difficulty) between Sacha and Lily. Part of the difficulty comes from the vast difference in their social status, and this is just one of many ways in which Moriarty brings themes of religion, class, immigration, and prejudice into his story telling. These issues simultaneously drive the plot and give depth to the characters and their actions. With its subtext of social justice and its New York setting, this would make a great book for the fan of mg sff to read while Occupying Wall Street. (In fact, I just learned, after typing that, that someone sent the Occupy Wall Street library four copies!).
So The Inquisitor's Apprentice got top marks, as far as I'm concerned, for world-building and character. It is, however, perhaps not for everyone. Some might find that the pace of the book is slowed down by the information given to the reader, and that the action and adventure of the story are not sufficiently front and center. I'm also not sure that a young reader will enjoy this one quite as much as the reader who actually knows something about turn of the century New York...much of the entertainment came from enjoying Moriarty's many little twists.
That being said, I personally enjoyed it tremendously (laugh out loud enjoyment, alongside some genuinely poignant moments, including one that still makes me teary eyed*), and want more about Inspector Wolf please!
Looking for other reviews to link to, I found Cory Doctorow's at Boing Boing, where he mentiones the period-style black and white illustrations. It came as a surprise to me that there were illustrations. I was too busy reading to notice them.
Other glowing reviews at Book Aunt and BooksForKidsBlog, and a rave review from a ten year old at Fresh Ink
And here's an interview with Morarty at The Enchanted Inkpot
*for those who have read the book--it's the bit about the coat with the money sewn into it.
(disclaimer: ARC received at BEA)