Goodreads: The Path of Names
Publication Date: January 2017
Dahlia Sherman wishes she were attending math camp this summer or magic camp. Instead, her parents have dropped her off at a Jewish summer camp where the counselors expect her to join clubs and participate in outdoor activities. At first Dahlia wants to leave. But then she sees two girls walk through the walls and discovers a strange maze hidden in the forest. What magic or miracles are occurring at camp? And will she and her friends make it home alive?
The Path of Names takes its inspiration from Kabbalah and introduces readers to a world steeped in Jewish mysticism. Some of the characters see their world as infused with prayer and miracles. Others call the powers they seek magic. Either way, there is no denying that Dahlia Sherman’s world is bigger than she ever imagined. Or that her story is unlikely to be something that readers will have previously encountered.
The relationships in the story are realistic and richly drawn, from Dahlia’s annoyance at being associated with her big brother to her desire to fit in with the girls in her cabin. A friendship with one of the most awkward boys at camp only complicates things, providing Dahlia with someone to share her adventures even as she struggles with the rumors that begin to fly about the two of them. In short, this is summer camp. Difficult and sometimes inconvenient, but perhaps, just perhaps, totally worth it. This realism helps ground the story as Dahlia begins to wonder if she is possessed by the spirit of man whose work on earth remains incomplete.
The connections to Kabbalah were intriguing and I would have enjoyed some more in-depth explanations of Kabbalah and of the”magic” system that the book portrays, especially as I was unsure how much of what the story presents is based on actual Jewish mysticism and how much was changed or imagined for the purposes of the plot. However, Goelman seems content to allow much of the magic to remain a mystery. The book even declines to take a position on where the power comes from, something I found particularly fascinating as this creates a sort of spiritual tension. Is the power divine? If it is, how can others misuse it?
I also think that it would have been interesting to know a little more about Dahlia and her beliefs. She seems uninterested in God or at least unwilling to talk about Him, but, other than that, we know very little about her religious views. Since the book is set in a Jewish summer camp, I think that exploring her relationship to Judaism could have been worthwhile, especially since I would have though that discovering the existence of spirits and words with seemingly magical powers would potentially shake a person’s beliefs. However, Goelman allows Dahlia to accept the existence of magic without much comment. It’s a strategy not uncommon in fantasy novels, but it seems a little odd in this book, considering that Dahlia seems to believe in a healthy dose of skepticism.
Overall, however, I enjoyed the book. The Path of Names is a solid fantasy with a unique premise and a likable protagonist. Sometimes, that’s just the kind of book you need to immerse yourself in during a summer afternoon.