Thousands of exhibits. Millions of visitors. One supernatural killer.
Neva’s goals at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago are simple. Enjoy the spectacle—perhaps the greatest the United States has ever put on (the world’s fair to end all world’s fairs!). Perform in the exposition’s Algerian Theatre to the best of her abilities. And don’t be found out as a witch.
Easy enough … until the morning she looks up in the theatre and sees strangely marked insects swarming a severed hand in the rafters. Before she can scream, the bugs drop and swarm her.
And every one of them seems to have a stinger.
They strike fast—it only takes them a moment to inject her with so much venom that the same strange marks begin to rise on her skin. She’s horrified, but there’s worse to come: once the insects disperse, a Columbian Guard notices her rashes and warns that five people with similar sores have been murdered and dismembered. Before they died, the victims also seem to have lost their minds.
Neva considers fleeing the exposition. But that won’t stop her from going mad. So she marshals her powers and searches for the killer.
Within hours, it becomes clear he’s searching for her too.
This book started off with a weird premise: a witch, who can bend her bones, is performing onstage when bugs fall from the ceiling and bite her.
I’ll admit, the weirdness of it drew me in. It’s not everyday you find a book that starts off with a magical insect swarm swallowing the heroine while she gyrates onstage for the masses. And as I got started, the visceral writing drew me in. I genuinely felt those shivers (which always seem to happen to me when bugs are either seen or mentioned) slither down my back as I dove into this book.
From there, I was off, and what an adventure it was! The powerful writing was superbly done, giving us a gorgeous cast of characters with quirks and flaws that made them well rounded. And the setting itself, *chef’s kiss*, was divine.
The setting definitely solidified itself as my favorite part of this story (but learning that Nick ran this as a D&D campaign before putting it in book format is a very, very close second!). Wisseman took careful planning and effort in setting the scene, and as such, the scene became a character in itself. The majesty and allure of the Fair was on full display, but Wisseman also tackled the veneer of that allure too: the working conditions and the unemployed droves displaced by the Fair’s construction. That rich layer greatly added to the story, giving the characters a strong backdrop as their tale unfolded.
My only problem (and let me just preface this by saying it’s more a personal preference of mine, rather than a full-blown problem) was the lack of an emotional connection with Augie at the beginning of the tale. I won’t dive too deep and spoil the story, but in the opening chapters, Neva rushes to her brother, Augie, for assistance after she’s been bitten. He disappears soon afterward, and her search for him drives a large chunk of the story, but the emotional connection between the two felt stilted.
In writing, authors often harp on the “Show, don’t Tell” mentality and it’s actually a good one: you’re supposed to show your readers scenes where they pull the emotional undercurrents out themselves, rather than telling them. For example, take a woman who’s parents both die in a terrible car wreck. And in the months afterward, every night after she comes home from work, she sits on the couch and flips through a photo album her mother had made of all of them smiling, together, and happy. One night, she comes home, and the house is on fire. Which of these two scenarios do you think has the most emotional pull for the reader? Number one, the woman narrating how depressed she is that her photo album, the last remnant of comfort her parents left her, is burning while she gazes on sadly. Or number two, where she rushes into the house, coughing, the fire hot on her skin, as she frantically makes her way to that photo album. It’s Number Two, isn’t it? Because we, the readers, saw the lengths she was willing to go to and we understood the emotional motivation behind it. That always, without fail, hits harder than the narration telling the feelings. It’s a showing, not a telling.
With Augie and Neva, their relationship tends to be more telling, less showing. Understandable, considering Augie disappearances in the first act of the story. But still, I would have loved a chapter showing the depth of their relationship beforehand. Granted, while searching, Neva does recount instances in their past that show the relationship, but it’s still hard for me to establish that emotional connection at the beginning, when Neva realizes he’s gone. I don’t feel that same frantic need to find him, because I didn’t see how much she cared for him. She told me through her narration, but it’s not the same.
Overall, this book is stellar. My nit-picky preference aside, I loved this book. The setting, the magic, the characters all created a compelling and irresistible story. 4.5 out of 5 stars!