by Timothy Schaffert
It's 1898, and the residents of the Midwest are filled with hope and wonder as the Omaha World's Fair opens. A ventriloquist called Ferret Skerritt and his friends – tricksters, hucksters, and showmen all – hope to find new audiences as tourists from across the country and around the world stream into town to see the sights. As he explores the midway, however, Ferret falls head-over-heels for a pretty actress named Cecily who works in the Chamber of Horrors, losing her head every hour as the doomed queen Marie Antoinette. As a romance blossoms against the rich backdrop of the fair, Skerritt's devotion to Cecily grows, but he's not the only one attracted to the beautiful performer...
This is Moulin Rouge meets The Night Circus with shades of Like Water for Elephants and The Devil in the White City all rolled into one epic story. If you were a fan of any of those books or movies, I think you'll like The Swan Gondola, too. It has so many elements of these stories: the romance of a lifetime between a poor writer and a beautiful-but-sickly performer, while a wealthy-yet-unsuitable suitor seducing the woman, the magical yet menacing backdrop of the Fair, richly described, the exotic cast of circus freaks, tricksters and everything in-between, all woven to create a most entertaining and lovely tapestry. Yes, it feels familiar, but though many scenes invite comparisons to other stories it never feels derivative of them.
The one exception I might make to this statement is in the case of The Wizard of Oz. The Swan Gondola is peppered with references to the classic children's series. They aren't blatant, at least not in the beginning, and the first few times I noticed them I thought, “I must be reading too much into this.” But as the story rolls along it becomes increasingly clear that the allusions are intentional and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was very influential on the author as he wrote - a fact he readily admits to in his Author's Note. It's not a prequel, but as a tribute to L. Frank Baum's iconic character it's far more effective than, say, Oz the Great and Powerful.
But there's so much more to this book than references to hot air balloons and emerald castles! I found the passages dedicated to Spiritualists and Ferret's attempts to find a credible medium to be quite entertaining, since I'm fascinated by the movement and the place it held in late 19th and early 20th century society. The story is quite the gothic romance – meaning in the Wuthering Heights sense, not Twilight melodrama – and worth your time if you decide to check it out.
4 out of 5 stars
To read more about The Swan Gondola, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.
Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: News: Scarlet Fever May Not Have Caused Mary Ingalls' Blindness
2012: Sailor Moon Vol. 1 by Naoko Takeuchi
2011: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
2010: Interview with Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes
2009: Hot Mess: Summer in the City by Julie Kraut