Hammer of Witches, by Shana Mlawski (Tu, 2013, upper middle grade/YA).
Young Baltasar has grown up in late 15th-century Spain, a time when the Spanish Inquisition was going strong, listening to the stories told him by his uncle Diego--many of which were drawn from the Jewish heritage Diego and his wife ostensibly renounced when they chose to become nominal Christians (it was either that, or living in terrible fear of discovery--Ferdinand and Isabel did not want any Jews in Spain). But of all his uncle's stories, Baltasar thrills most to those of the brave warrior Amir al-Katib, who fought for the Christian kingdoms of Europe, was betrayed by them, and ended his life fighting on the side of the Moors who were being driven from Spain. Or so Baltasar has always believed.
But that's not actually how Amir al-Katib's story ended. When a sinister oranization, known as the Hammer of Witches, dedicated to fighting witchcraft with any means deemed necessary, imprisons Baltasar, he is questioned under threat of torture about Amir. And he intensively responds with a gift for magical storytelling he didn't know he had--and raises a golem, who carries him home.
Where, of course, the nice folks (not) from the Hammer of Witches know where to find him.
Now his aunt and uncle are dead, and Baltasar is on the run. But he's not alone for long--his uncle has passed on a slim golden chain that belonged ot Amir al-Katib himself, and, much to Baltasar's wonder, it summons an Ifritah--a girl who is have spirit, half human, and full of magic. And when the Ifritah, Jinniyah, takes him to Baba Yaga for advice, Baltasar finds that a great evil is about to head west from Europe across the sea...and that he might be able to thwart it.
And so Baltasar and Jinniyah sail off with Christopher Columbus....a journey wherein the little fleet is beset by magical enemies. But Baltasar can answer each magical creature with one of his own; the real evil (obviously to the modern reader) doesn't come until land is reached, and the Columbian consequences begin.
So. It is tremendously exciting, what with magical adventures, the voyage of exploration, the fact that the Hammer of Witches has a spy embedded in the voyage, the mystery of Amir al-Katib (which plays a large part in the story), and Baltasar's own growing control of his storytelling magic. In particular, Baltasar's time spent with the Taino people, who are describe in rich detail, and who seem much saner than the Europeans, is worthwhile reading.
Just about any reader who likes excitement will appreciate the high-stakes, fast-moving story; those who are Readers to begin with will especially appreciate the strong link here between magic and storytelling. It is a fascinating take on the story of Columbus' voyage, one that respects the Taino and gives them equal agency to the Europeans. There is a strong young female character, too, to round things off gender-wise, and to my surprise it wasn't Jinnyah but someone else....
I didn't find it a perfect read, though, primarily because Baltasar is a very distant first-person narrator. He's awfully good at describing (his words made beautifully clear pictures in my mind), but not so good at sharing enough of his feelings to make me care deeply about him as an individual. And, in fact, at one point I actively disliked him--after the aforementioned girl character witnessed the rape of Taino women, it was creepy of Baltasar to kiss her uninvited, and then, a few pages later, jokingly say to her that "we both know you're dying for another kiss" (page 286).
I was also disappointed by the fact that Jinniyah, the Ifritah, doesn't end up having much of a role in the story--I kept expecting her to be responsible for some major twist in the plot, but she never took center stage, and was often shunted off onto the sidelines.
Still, there was much to enjoy, and it was refreshing to read a book whose main character not only embodies the clash of cultures in 15th century Europe between Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam, but offers an unflinching look at the horror Columbus' voyage unleashed on the native peoples he encountered.
For another perspective, here's the Kirkus review.
Note on age: This one felt rather tween-ish to me, which is to say for readers 11 to 14. Baltasar himself is fourteen (though, I think, a rather young 14), and a few specific instance of violence, including what happened to the Taino women, pushes this beyond something I'd give to a ten-year old.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher