I posted last week about Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni, which I had the opportunity to finish on my way home from the OHALAH conference of Jewish Renewal clergy.
The other book I read on my way home was Phoebe North's YA novel Starglass. It's about a girl named Terra growing up on a spaceship which has been traveling for 500 years toward a new home, a planet the would-be colonists call Zehava, a name which means something like "Golden." (If that puts you in mind of historical Jewish yearning for Yerushalayim shel zahav, Jerusalem, city of gold, you're not far off the mark.)
The premise -- ship full of travelers who departed Earth in crisis and are seeking a new home -- is one I've seen before, and probably you have too. (I think especially of Molly Gloss's gorgeous The Dazzle of Day, one of my favorite examples of that trope.) Part of what makes Starglass unique is how Judaism is woven into the fabric of shipboard life. Well: a kind of Judaism. A Judaism which has evolved in complicated ways over the 500+ years since the asteroid wiped out life on Earth and these colonists set out on their long journey.
The worldbuilding is terrific. (There's a whole page on the author's website dedicated to explaining the world, the ship's architecture, and so on -- but you don't need to read any of that before you dive into the novel; it's just fun stuff to explore once the pleasure of the novel is over.) North trusts us to follow her narration and to understand Terra's world by watching her grow up in it. North doesn't overexplain, and as a result, I as a reader got all kinds of happy little glimmers of recognition as I figured things out.
As the book unfolds, it becomes clear that this isn't just an ordinary coming-of-age story -- not even an ordinary coming-of-age story in space. This is a book about history, totalitarianism, politics, liberty, the importance of fighting for what you believe in. And, of course, also about choice and romance and growing up and parenthood and childhood and all of that good jazz.
For me, the glimpses of how Judaism has been both preserved and mutated are the most fascinating part. The passengers' lingo is peppered with Yiddish and Hebrew words, most of which retain the meanings I know -- but some have shifted. For instance: bar mitzvah, in this book, refers to the coming-of-age ceremony whereby a shipboard boy gets his vasectomy so that accidental pregnancies won't disrupt the delicate ecosystem of shipboard life. (Babies are grown in uterine replicators anyway.) All kinds of substantive Jewish ideas and concepts have been subtly refigured here: mitzvah, tikkun olam... It's both beautiful and chilling to see how Jewish language and practice has shifted in this fictional universe.
There's an excerpt online at Tor.com -- take a peek and see if this book might be your cup of tea, as it was mine. My only real quibble was where it ended; I felt as though we were on the cusp of a whole new adventure, and while it was a reasonable ending-point for the novel, I still wanted more. Then I found out there's a second book coming out next summer, Starbreak. Now I can't wait for July when I get to find out what happens to Terra next.