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*

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Empire V – Victor Pelevin

Victor Pelevin’s Empire V (English translation published by Gollancz, review copy from NetGalley) aspires to be a 21st Century The Master and Margarita.  It follows a young man called Ram, who is drifting through life in modern Russia.  He follows chalk marks on the floor to an apartment where he is offered a bright future.  He is transformed into the vampire Rama, and is gradually educated about vampires and the controlling role they play in the world economy.

Pelevin paints a harsh and nihilistic view of contemporary Russian society.  It’s a very cynical view of commercialisation: the vampires are a literal parasitic class exploiting the labour and hopes and dreams of ordinary people.  They are not productive in themselves, but instead create a culture of discontent, ambition and greed that fuels the economic activity that creates the conditions for the vampires to thrive.  Strange rituals link the vampires to a secret society of the rich and powerful in society, as if the Bilderberg group were participating in scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut.  The theatre the vampires create preserves their position of dominance.

The reader follows the naive Rama as he learns more about the new world and society he finds himself in.  Like the worst social climbers out of water, he over-compensates in order to convince that he belongs as a member of the group.  Pelevin contrasts Rama with another new vampire, the worldly-wise Hera.  Achingly cool and very well-informed, Hera navigates vampire society with an ease and facility that Rama envies.  Although regularly humiliated by her, it only fuels his attraction  and desperation to please and impress her: a microcosm of vampire society’s control over the rest of the world.

Empire V is a cynical and disturbing read, but thought-provoking.

Goodreads rating: 3*

Foxlowe – Eleanor Wasserberg

Eleanor Wasserberg‘s debut, Foxlowe (Fourth Estate, review copy from NetGalley) is a chilling portrayal of physical and psychological abuse, and the legacy they can leave.  Set in a Utopian but poverty-stricken New Age commune of artists and bohemians, it follows the Family, and their shifting power dynamics and relationships, as people arrive and leave.

The story is told through the eyes of Green, a young girl growing up in the commune.  All she knows is Foxlowe, the Family, and its rules and customs.  She’s received no formal education, with her parents, Richard and Freya (two of the Founders of Foxlowe) firmly believing that it is better to raise Green and the other children off-grid and more closely in tune with nature.  Green’s existence is bounded by the seasons and rituals built around the local ley lines, standing stones and a strange phenomenon whereby at the solstice the sun appears to briefly rise again after setting behind the local hills.  Above all, Green has been raised to fear The Bad, an existential evil that contaminates and can only be driven out by the proper rituals.

As a child Green secretly puts Blue, the new baby, outside a supposedly protective salt circle, leading Green to believe she is responsible for infecting Blue with The Bad.  Green’s mother, Freya, is an abuser.  There is a truly horrifying description in Foxlowe of the time Freya makes Green take the ‘Spike Walk’: walking along a narrow passage lined with old, rusty picture nails that scratch and tear the flesh.  Freya is not satisfied until sufficient blood has been shed to punish, cause pain and supposedly hold The Bad at bay for a while.  Desperate for Freya’s love and approval, Green comes to believe she deserves the abuse she experiences, and becomes complicit in the abuse of others, with inevitable tragic consequences.

One of the strengths of the novel is the way Wasserberg conveys the horror of Foxlowe through the perspective of a limited first person narrator.  We see the horror, but Green does not comprehend it.  When Green eventually leaves Foxlowe she struggles to adjust to life in the outside world.  Her sheltered upbringing means she is ill equipped to navigate it, and, carrying extreme levels of guilt, she cannot see herself as victim, or her beloved Freya as abuser.  There are few things as taboo in our society as a mother who abuses her children, and we instinctively recoil from Freya, but Green forces us to see her creativity and compassion (albeit it manifests in a twisted way).  Rightly or wrongly, Green loves Freya.

Foxlowe is an accomplished and thought-provoking debut.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Fellside – M R Carey

What is justice, and who among us are truly innocent?  Those are the questions posed by M R Carey in his sublime and redemptive novel Fellside (Orbit, review copy from NetGalley).

Jess Moulson wakes up in hospital with horrific burns and no memory of the fire that caused them.  But she finds herself on trial for the murder of a small boy, accused of setting the fire that led to his death from smoke inhalation.  Convicted, she is sent to the notorious high security wing of Fellside women’s prison.  Filled with self-loathing for the crime she believes she committed, Jess goes on hunger strike, but is saved by the ghost of the boy she befriended and who died in the fire.  With the ghost boy’s help she seeks to unravel what really happened on the night of the fire.

Fellside would be a rough place, even if Jess wasn’t known as a child-killer.  The high-security wing is controlled by the ruthless and violent Harriet Grace.  Along with the corrupt Head of Security, Devlin, Grace runs a drugs empire throughout the prison.  When she tries to recruit Jess as a drugs mule during the appeal of her conviction they are thrown into a conflict that threatens to bring down the whole of Fellside.

Fellside deals with some profound themes about the nature of justice.  The justice system itself only deals with those cases that are brought before it, and while it is capable of establishing the facts of a case, it does so on the basis of only the evidence put before it.  In the case of the amnesiac Jess, it will only ever be able to reach a partial view.  And it fails Jess as an addict and the victim of domestic violence, until she is reconciled enough with herself to seek to re-open the case.  But the system fails to address the greater crimes of Grace and Devlin, whose positions of relative power give them a measure of control over it.

We are asked to consider who is guilty and who is innocent.  Dr Salazar, the essentially good-hearted prison doctor has been so ground down by the environment that he works in that he colludes with, and facilitates the crimes of others, and never feels he has the ability to challenge what is going on within the prison.  One of his nurses causes harm by acting with a real lack of compassion, based on her own prejudices.  And Jess is not the only offender who is also a victim – Grace brutally exploits the vulnerability of other prisoners, including her own heavies.

But for all its bleakness, Fellside is an uplifting story of justice and redemption.

Goodreads rating: 5*