Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Review: The Pomegranate Gate by Ariel Kaplan

A beautifully structured story of duality and Jewish-flavoured mythology

Jews in Inquisition-era Spain are having a bit of a moment this week. Roseanna's review of Leigh Bardugo's The Familiar gave a nice mention to Ariel Kaplan's new book, The Pomegranate Gate, and it gives me great pleasure to flesh out what worked so nicely about it.

Perpetual persecution, expulsion, and pogroms mean that your typical Sephardic Jew in, say, 16th-century Spain can never fully relax. One such person, young Toba Peres, has been raised with this wariness her whole life. Her grandparents, scholars, live in a house full of books, and in her youth she learns geography by poring over maps, while her grandmother plays a game with her, a game that is not a game at all: ‘Of course, we are safe—but if you had to flee, where would you go?’

Naftaly Cresques is the son of a tailor but not terribly good at his inherited profession. Instead, he has inherited a different skill from his father: the ability to travel in dreams. He’ll see his father in his dreams, along with strange people whose pupils are square like goats’ rather than round. His father never speaks to him of their shared adventures, but one night, when some upheaval roils the city of Naftaly’s dreams, he wakes and goes downstairs, where his father tells him, ‘Do not go back to sleep tonight.’

From these two starting incidents, the entire structure of the book is laid out with exquisite skill. The overarching principle at play here is duality and crossover. Toba introduces us to the historical world, of 16th-century Jews facing expulsion from Spain, while Naftaly’s dreams introduce us to a parallel world, occupied by square-pupiled Maziks, types of demons mentioned in the Talmud briefly, but in Kaplan’s imagining fleshed out into a combination of djinn and fae. They are poisoned by salt, bound by their promises and their names, fundamentally reliant on magic to exist. The human and Mazik worlds are intertwined and mirror each other in nebulous ways: the upheaval of the expulsion of the Jews is reflected in a political power struggle in the world of the Maziks, and in the chaos of flight, Toba and Naftaly become separated from the rest of their friends, forming the two poles around which the rest of the plot is built. Following the theme of crossover, Toba stumbles into the world of the Maziks, while Naftaly joins forces with an old woman who refuses to give her name, and must make his way through mortal Spain on his wits. Yet Naftaly continues to visit Maziks in his dreams (and one specific Mazik in particular, if you understand my waggling eyebrows), because, as the Mazik world mirrors the human world, the dream world of the Maziks visits their own world.

This theme of duality and crossover is everywhere. Toba and Naftaly are a pair whose adventures remain mostly separate, but occasionally intersect. The human and Mazik worlds are mostly isolated, but join at the full moon.  At one point, Toba splits into two versions of herself, which share some degree of knowledge and perception about the world but rapidly diverge into two separate characters, Toba and Toba Bet. Even the smallest details of magic are flavored by this unstable, linked duality. Naftaly, in learning to transform cloth into gold, learns that linen will hold the transformation but wool will revert more quickly. Linen paired with wool, fabric paired with gold, transformation and reversion—it’s all part of the broader structure.

Although Kaplan’s research in describing the people and cities and neighbourhoods and politics of 16th-century Spain and Portugal shows clearly, I found myself more engaged with learning about the world of the Maziks. Possibly this is because human history is fixed, while our small band of heroes has a hope of changing things more substantially with the Maziks. And change is needed there: The realm’s political turmoil can be traced back to a catastrophe which swamped the city of Luz beneath the poisonous salt ocean. Luz was also home to the ruling monarch of the whole world, and the ensuing power struggle has led to an unfortunate series of coups, assassins, and lost heirs whose status as next in line is inconveniently manifested by marks on their bodies as each predecessor is assassinated. Things get very lively. There is a certain degree of dismemberment.

Things also get very confusing in places. The reader is well advised to keep an eye on the glossary, as the names of secret societies and political movements do have a habit of being introduced as mysterious allusions, and then referred to later as accepted fact. Somehow the narrative keeps skipping over the bit where they are properly defined. And, since this is the first book in a trilogy, many plot elements are introduced without being resolved. Those secret societies are surely not completely disbanded. Their secret studies that were maybe responsible for the destruction of Luz are surely not completely abandoned. And it cannot be trivial that the old woman who joins Naftaly in his plot arc is never given a name, and is ‘the old woman’ throughout the entire narrative. In a world where knowing someone’s true name binds them to you in a very fae-like manner, the old woman’s reticence about her identity is definitely going to come back in some important way.

I have already had the pleasure of obtaining from Netgalley the second book in this series, The Republic of Salt, which develops some of these plot elements in extremely pleasing ways. But it still plays its cards close to its chest with respect to the old woman’s identity. I have suspicions, though! I can’t wait to see if they’re correct when the third book is released.


Nerd coefficient: 8/10: Well worth your time and attention

  • Elegantly structured plot
  • Jewish-norm characters
  • Binding promises

CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at

Reference:  Kaplan, Ariel. The Pomegranate Gate [Rebellion Publishing, 2023].