Dr Potter’s Medicine Show – Eric Scott Fischl

Dr Potter’s Medicine Show (Eric Scott Fischl, review copy from Angry Robot) is a dark and lush gothic horror set in frontier America.  The titular Dr Alexander Potter is a seller of snake-oil, taking his touring circus and freak show round the Western states of America.  But the mystery potion that Dr Potter is selling – The Chock-a-saw Sagwa Tonic – is not your usual concoction, part placebo, part laudanum.  This Tonic is an alchemical preparation, part of an experimental series designed to unlock the secrets of eternal life.

This is a novel populated by grotesques and monsters, none more so than the sadistic Lyman Rhoades, who has the whole medicine show under his control.  The venal and cowardly Dr Potter is dependent on his patronage to get access to the Sagwa Tonic that is keeping him and other key Medicine Show people alive.  But Rhoades himself is merely the roving agent of a reclusive chemist, Dr Morrison Hedwith.  He brews the Sagwa Tonic as part of his experiments, and sends the Medicine Show out on the road in the hopes that its travels will conceal some of the more horrific results of his experimentation.

This is not an easy read.  Expect lots of graphic violence and sadistic torture, including sexual violence and its threat.  There is no white hat hero for the reader to identify with.  But the darkness and violence fits the overall tenor and style of the novel.  It rattles along as a satisfying thriller, building to a climactic and horrific close.

Goodreads rating: 3*

Jane Steele – Lyndsay Faye

Cross Jane Eyre with a penny dreadful and you have Lyndsay Faye‘s glorious novel Jane Steele (Headline, review copy from NetGalley).

Jane Steele grows up with her widowed, French mother, in a cottage in the grounds of Highgate House, where her Aunt Patience (also widowed) lives with her son.  Jane’s mother tells her that her father has ensured that she will always have the right to live at Highgate House.  But when her mother (always a ‘temperamental artist’) commits suicide by taking an overdose, and Jane accidentally kills her cousin while fighting off a rape attempt, her life is thrown into confusion.  She is packed off to Lowan Bridge school, with its sadistic headmaster, Vesalius Munt, where she learns to lie, cheat and steal.  After escaping the school for the fleshpots of London, Jane finds work writing gallows confessions.  One day she sees the job of governess advertised at Highgate House, working for its new owner, Mr Thornfield, who has recently returned from India with his Punjabi household staff.  Jane applies under an alias, keen to regain her inheritance.

The story that unfolds is a rollicking tale of murder, betrayal, violence and missing Punjabi treasure, with a predictable, but nonetheless satisfying, romance.  Faye uses Jane Eyre very playfully in her novel – Jane Steele is stuffed full of references to Bronte’s classic novel.  (Mr Thornfield is, of course, named after Mr Rochester’s house, and the novel follows the basic narrative of school, governess, escape and return.)  But many of them are turned on their heads – chiefly, that it is Jane who is thrown from her horse when it is startled by Mr Thornfield..  There are also nods to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dickens.  The plot rattles along with verve and has a satisfying mystery at its heart.

Jane is an engaging heroine – she is clever, resourceful and tenacious, with healthy appetites for life’s pleasures, particularly books, clothes and men.  And Charles Thornfield is a suitably mysterious and Byronic leading man.

Jane Steele is a brilliantly entertaining take on the Victorian gothic novel.

Goodreads rating: 4*