Gavriel Savit introduces an exclusive excerpt from his evocative YA fantasy novel, The Way Back.
Set in a frigid and arcane 19th century winter, The Way Back blends Jewish demonology with a fairytale past to create a beautiful tale of mysticism, mystery, and just one low-key little war against the Angel of Death.
Author Gavriel Savit tells Hypable about finding his own way to this story, and what fans can expect from The Way Back.
Gavriel Savit on ‘The Way Back’
I have always been a fantasy kid. My dad read me The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings at bedtime, and Harry Potter was my constant companion from the year we both turned 11. But I grew up in a small Orthodox Jewish community, and in our culture, tales of enchantment abound as well: wise, mystic rabbis, mischievous demons, shadowy angels with innumerable eyes.
I’ve never understood why there are so few stories that marry popular and Jewish fantasy. To me, they seem like a natural fit — like two doors opening into one room. With my novel The Way Back (due out Nov. 17) I’m thrilled to throw open both of these doors and welcome you all inside.
The Way Back is the story of two kids, Yehuda Leib and Bluma, from the tiny ninteteenth-century shtetl of Tupik in Eastern Europe. When the Angel of Death comes waltzing through town late one night, the two of them are sent spinning off on a double adventure that will take them deep into the heart of the Far Country — the land on the other side of the cemetery.
A long road lies before them, filled with twists and turns.
And if they can follow its course, then maybe — just maybe — they’ll manage to find the way back.
Excerpt from ‘The Way Back,’ by Gavriel Savit
The Treasure House of Lord Mammon is a wide, rambling jumble of walls and buttresses, porticoes, arches, and columns. By the time Yehuda Leib came near, the crow had long since gone in through a window casement many stories above.
Yehuda Leib was eager to follow.
But the doors of the Treasure House are many. Those who wish to walk in unopposed find open archways; those who wish to ask and be invited find doors that swing inward at the tapping of a knuckle.
And boys like Yehuda Leib — who are as certain that they deserve to be inside as they are that they will be turned away — find locks and barriers, chains and deadbolts, and, eventually, a single, low, out-of-the-way door with a knob that turns smoothly.
As much out of habit as out of caution, Yehuda Leib left the door ajar behind him.
Everyone knows: it is unwise to shut yourself in where you ought not to be.
The room in which Yehuda Leib found himself now was low and dim. All around him, rough-hewn shelves crowded in close, reaching from the floor—which was either made of dirt or so thick with dust that it might as well have been—up to the bowed and buckling ceiling.
No one is meant to see Lord Mammon’s Hoard itself.
In accordance with the terms of a treaty once set out between Lord Mammon and Lord Dantalion, Master of Whispers—another great and noble demon—a cataloging was undertaken long ago to make a record of the Hoard’s vast holdings.
As of this writing, the project is still ongoing.
As an example, among the catalog’s nearly innumerable volumes, there are fully twenty-seven (five hundred pages each, with every page accommodating between twenty-five and thirty entries) describing only Lord Mammon’s collection of porcelain cups. None of these twenty-seven volumes touch upon his porcelain bowls (of which there are many), or his stone cups (of which there are more), or any other vessel of porcelain or any other substance.
At first Yehuda Leib thought the Hoard was entirely without organization, but as he made his way through room after low-ceilinged room, he began to notice affinities in the chaos. Here were several shelves containing dulled sharp things—kitchen knives, needles and pins, shards of glass. On his right was a shelf of writings that had once been legible but were no longer, and up ahead the marks of dirt and clay identified shelves of things dug up from the ground.
Things, things, things — there seemed to be no end to them.
Out of curiosity, Yehuda Leib took an old map down from a high shelf, but the accumulated mass of angry, feathery dust on its surface threw him into such a paroxysm of sneezing that he resolved, as much as possible, to leave things where they were.
On and on Yehuda Leib went. Where was the crow? Where was his father? There were no lamps or windows here — at least none that were operational — and the shelves began to close in, bringing the thick darkness close to his skin.
Before he knew it, Yehuda Leib could no longer see where he was going. Soon he was navigating by touch alone, running his fingers along the rough wooden shelves until his hands were full of splinters.
Carefully, he made his way onward, his nerves fraying further and further by the moment.
But in the thick, silent darkness, time had come to spin in anxious, meaningless circles.
Who could tell a moment anymore? Was there even such a thing?
And just as this notion occurred to him, Yehuda Leib put his boot directly into a large burlap sack of what were unmistakably human teeth.
He cursed and stumbled backward, brushing hard at his pant leg.
And it was only at this precise angle, bent and backward, that he happened to see something far off through the clutter:
A hint of glimmering light.
And, behind it, a fire burning.
Lilith walked alone through the cold blue moonlight. Her attendant cats left small marks in the snow — here the scraping of a claw, there the brushing of a tail—but her bare feet left none.
For a long while, Bluma followed in silence, unsure if she wanted to continue, unsure how she could stop. From time to time, one of the Sisters of the Lileen would join Lilith — a gray cat alighting on her shoulder, a gray lady falling in beside her — and they would walk together briefly, talking quietly or not at all. It seemed to make no difference to Lilith if she was accompanied.
Or, rather, she seemed to be accompanied whether there was anyone beside her or not.
The path they took between the graves was long and winding. Soon Bluma began to wonder if it would lead them anywhere at all. It seemed totally capricious: back and forth, back and forth, as if they were following only Lilith’s whim.
But as soon as this thought had cut into her head, there, beside her, a gray lady spoke.
“It’s not like in the living world,” she said. “The direction matters less than you think.”
Bluma’s gut lurched. If this was not the living world, then what was it? She turned her head, and there was a skulking gray cat.
“But we are going somewhere, aren’t we?” said Bluma into the darkness.
“Oh yes,” said a voice from over her shoulder.
This was less than convincing to Bluma, and she muttered in a voice so small that she could barely hear it herself: “Well, then, where?”
Without looking over her shoulder, Lilith spoke, far ahead: “To Zubinsk. To receive the bride.”
But this didn’t make sense. Everyone in Tupik knew the quickest way to Zubinsk — through the forest — and this was surely not it.
And then, again, so soft that she could not say if it was in her ear or in her mind, a voice:
The direction matters less than you think.
On her other side, another gray lady was speaking.
“It must be hard to understand. Where you come from, the people move around the earth. Here, the earth moves and the people are still.”
Bluma shook her head to clear the sudden vision of her bubbe sunken in the cold dirt.
“But I know a faster way to Zubinsk,” she said.
A gray lady shook her head. “Not for us.”
“There are rules,” said another.
On her other side: “The Cemetery is a hall with many doors — one can enter from wherever the living die.”
“But to come back out again — that is a rarer trick.”
Ahead, Lilith paused to examine the passage between two tall obelisks.
“But there is a wedding in Zubinsk.”
“Have you heard?”
“All are invited.”
“Neither the living nor the dead shall be excluded.”
“Nor any other besides.”
“And for those of us normally barred from the living world…”
“A living invitation can bring us through.”
Bluma’s head was swimming.
“One can enter the Cemetery from wherever the living die.”
“And with the guidance of our Sister Lilith…”
“We may come back out again,” said the Sisters of the Lileen, “wherever the dying live.”
There was something wrong. This room was not as it should’ve been.
Yehuda Leib had lost track of time in the Hoard, but he didn’t think he could’ve passed entire seasons among the shelves. And yet, right in front of him, with his own two eyes, he could see a window letting in the gray light of an overcast summer evening.
How could this be?
Cautiously, he crept forward.
It was a billiards room with thick velvet drapes and dark woodwork. A fire had been left to dwindle in the grate, and a glass of brandy sat on the edge of the table, which — cues and all — had been abandoned mid-game.
The room felt as if its occupants had just departed and equally as if they had not been here in years.
And both were true. For Lord Mammon trades not only in things but in places, as well, and thoughts, and memories.
And many other things besides.
Yehuda Leib felt himself simultaneously comforted and disquieted as he pushed through the door on the far side of the room. It was a second billiards room—blue, where the first one had been red.
But, more importantly, outside the window of the second room a gentle rain fell through brown autumn leaves.
Yehuda Leib looked back. Still, through the window of the first room, he could see a thicket of sunlit summer leaves.
Yehuda Leib swallowed hard.
The rooms in this place seemed to keep their own time.
He was about to go through into the blue room when a loud cracking made him jump. Spinning around, Yehuda Leib saw that a shot had been taken on the red billiards table—the balls were no longer in the same position—and, what was more, the level of the brandy in the glass had sunk precipitously.
But there was no one here.
“H-hello?” called Yehuda Leib.
Yehuda Leib was uneasy. Perhaps he ought to find his way out.
But at precisely this moment, a sound echoed from far within the Treasure House.
A sort of honking caw.
Yehuda Leib pushed forward.
At first they were all billiards rooms—some pristine and unused, some choked in cigar smoke, one even missing half its ceiling—but before long, the theme began to vary:
Here was a room dotted with card tables, the hands dealt out before pushed-back chairs. As Yehuda Leib picked his way through to the far door, he saw all the suits he was familiar with—hearts, spades, diamonds, clubs—but there were new and strange suits as well:
There was a small stone chamber containing nothing but a mid-game chessboard, and at one point, Yehuda Leib pushed through a door to find himself in a long wooden hall with a net slung down the middle: an old wooden tennis court.
And, all the while, the squawk of the crow echoed out through the Treasure House.
Finally, Yehuda Leib went through a heavy white door into a rich corridor lined with thick carpeting.
Here. The sound was here.
The corridor was, in fact, part of a massive stairwell, and, peering down its long shaft, Yehuda Leib could see the crow, squawking and hopping, flapping furiously, trying to get off the floor at the very bottom of the staircase.
But no matter how hard it tried, the attempt was doomed to fail: the crow had been weighted down with treasure—heavy jeweled chains, bulky gold rings, even a little crown atop its feathered head—and under all this weight, it had no chance at all of flying away.
In a flash, Yehuda Leib spun down the stairs, flight after flight, turning and turning until he had it, a handful of dark, croaking feathers that squirmed and squalled in his grasp.
“Give him back,” cried Yehuda Leib, suddenly on the verge of tears. “Give him back!”
But to his horror, the crow was laughing. “Too late!” said the bird.
“What?” said Yehuda Leib. “What do you mean?”
But already Yehuda Leib was beginning to understand: there was no light in the bird’s throat.
With a sound like the snipping of heavy shears, the crow’s great beak snapped at Yehuda Leib’s fingers; with a crashing thud, he let the demon fall to the floor.
“What did you do?”
“I sold him.”
This was incomprehensible to Yehuda Leib. “You what?”
“I had something,” croaked the crow, “and I wanted something. That’s the way the world works.”
Yehuda Leib was furious. “He wasn’t . . .” It took all the strength he had left in him not to punt the little demon across the hall. “He wasn’t yours to sell!”
“Ha!” said the crow. “At least I gave him up for something. What would you have given me?”
Yehuda Leib felt hot embarrassment spread across his cheeks. “Just tell me where he is.”
Another grunting laugh. “You’ll have to talk to Lord Mammon.”
Yehuda Leib grimaced. “Where?”
The crow gestured across the hall with its beak: a pair of grand double doors, one ajar.
Yehuda Leib was in a hurry to retrieve his father, and so he turned and left the crow to its vain hopping without asking the details of its bargain.
But it would’ve served him to learn:
Lord Mammon is cunning.
And everyone knows: he rarely deals plainly.
The Way Back by Gavriel Savit will be available on Nov. 17. Find out more about at PenguinRandomHouse.com and GoodReads, and pre-order from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your local independent bookstore.