Ears on the Odyssey

Audio Review: The Way Back

In an atmospheric and epic historical fantasy adventure that draws from Jewish folklore, two children face down death in this second offering from Gavriel Savit.

Something has gone wrong in the small shtetl of Tupik, the consequences of which could shake the whole of existence. Bluma, a bright and bold young girl, overhears the Angel of Death paying its visit to her grandmother in her room at the top of the house one fateful night. The Angel, startled on its way out, drops its tool, its spoon. Bluma, finding it, discovers that it can take her to the Far Country, the realm of the Angel of Death and of many nefarious demons. She is immediately taken in by the demon Lilith, who with her followers and all of the other denizens of the Far Country are travelling to attend the real-world wedding of the granddaughter of the Rebbe of Zubinsk. 

Meanwhile, nearby, a boy named Yehuda Leib is on the run, fleeing the arrival of a dangerous man looking for war conscripts, and Yehuda Leib in particular. An unexpected confrontation in the woods results in someone lying dead – but the Angel of Death cannot send his soul away properly without the spoon in Bluma’s pocket. Forced to improvise, the Angel sends it with a demon – and Yehuda Leib follows, straight into the Far Country as well. Thus begins an adventure that will bring Yehuda Leib and Bluma together on a quest of almost unimaginable scale – to overthrow death and reclaim what they both have lost. 

When I saw that Gavriel Savit’s new book was to be narrated by Allan Corduner, I knew I had to listen. This combo brought us the winner of the 2017 Odyssey Award, Anna and the Swallow Man. How lucky for me then that The Way Back turned out to be one of my favorite kinds of stories  – a fantasy so steeped in folklore and the traditions of storytelling that every moment drips with consequence and meaning. Some source material was familiar but most was not; when this kind of story is executed well, it doesn’t matter – the author conveys to you what is essential. 

Corduner is, naturally, an excellent fit for this audio. Corduner’s narration in general has a gravity that is exceptionally well-suited for stories that deal in heavier themes. His low, stately voice and rock-steady pacing set a mood that is difficult to pin down – sombre and inevitable, but quick to shift to tense excitement or moments of humor at need. In this particular title, his ability to sustain that mood was a boon for a story where the protagonists spend much of their time in mortal peril. To the many demons that inhabit the Far Country, Corduner brings a motley assortment of voices that range from hilarious to terrifying; the voice he gives to the Angel of Death is particularly effective. This is a surefire recommendation for fans of books like The Graveyard Book, His Dark Materials, and The Girl Who Drank the Moon looking for a serious next listen.

The Way Back by Gavriel Savit, read by Allan Corduner. 10 hours, 53 minutes. Penguin Random House, 2020. 

Darla Salva Cruz is the Youth Services Consultant for the Suffolk Cooperative Library System in New York. She has served on the 2018 Odyssey Committee, is currently serving as co-chair for the Early Childhood Programs and Services Committee, and reviews for School Library Journal. Darla has been a voracious audio listener since at least 8 years old, when she remembers listening to Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt on repeat all summer long. 

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