Book Review: Gaslight Carnival by Tracy Cembor

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Tracy Cembor sent me an email via the Contact Me page on this blog and asked whether I do book reviews in return for gift copies. Gaslight Carnival is her first novella and currently available on Amazon for US$0.99. For that price, I told her I’d happily purchase a copy to read and review it.

Gaslight Carnival is subtitled with the words A Dreamless City Steampunk Story. I had to look up the meaning of steampunk because although I’d seen the reference a lot, I’d never taken the trouble to find out precisely what it meant. I’ve certainly never read steampunk fiction before. Wikipedia describes it as “a subgenre of science fiction and sometimes fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery”.

Gaslight Carnival slides somewhere into the in-between of science fiction and fantasy. It is the story of Margo, a young and unlicensed alchemist struggling to keep her father’s alchemy shop going after he sold her twin brother to the eponymous Gaslight Carnival and then succumbed to accidental poisoning. The money went towards paying Margo’s medical bills after an unsupervised alchemy accident and she feels a terrible responsibility.

She has received several unwanted and menacing offers from a local gangster to work for him, essentially as an illegal drug manufacturer. But Margo has a plan: she is going to buy her twin brother’s freedom so he can come home. They will be a family again, her debt will be repaid, and no one will threaten her or her business anymore.

Of course, it’s never going to be that simple. When Margo goes to the carnival, the ringmaster takes the large amount of money she has saved and says she will only let Leonard, Margo’s twin brother, go if Margo can perform a series of difficult tasks, all of which are designed for Margo to fail.

This is the first time I’ve ever reviewed a piece of fiction specifically at the request of the author. Now I realise there is a temptation to be kinder than I might ordinarily be because of that small personal connection. I don’t know Tracy but she reached out to me, no doubt in the hope that I would have all positive things to say.

The best I can do is half positive, half negative (which accounts for the 2.5 star rating – normally I rate according to the Goodreads system, which doesn’t allow for half stars, but I genuinely believed that Gaslight Carnival deserved it).

The positive half first – the novella displays the bones of a very good idea and the way Tracy Cembor has written the second task Margo has to perform drew me into the scene in the best possible way. It was the most evocative and interesting part of the novella. The character of Rook was so endearing, I wanted more of him. And I genuinely believe that fans of Samantha Shannon could easily be fans of Tracy Cembor.

The negative half now – despite the bones of a very good idea, there is very little flesh on them. I suspect that this story – which easily contains enough characters and ideas for a novel – is a novella because the author isn’t ready to commit to and develop a more complex narrative.

There is little character development and what there is feels forced – Margo can’t stand up to her tormentors outside the carnival but inside it she stands up to the ringmaster when none of the other carnival workers can or do, which is strange because a lot of them are more threatening than she is. And her sudden change of heart about the use of dangerous alchemy against people is unexplained. She spends a considerable length of the novella abiding by her father’s alchemy rules (even though he is portrayed as a generally terrible role model), then suddenly abandons them, mainly because the story wouldn’t have been able to go where the author needed it to if she didn’t. Margo is one dimensional and naïve in the extreme, considering the hard life lessons she has been through. Additionally, the villains are stereotypical and rely on fear rather than any genuine evil to keep their criminal empires going.

The descriptive style follows a very strict pattern – adjective noun, verb adverb, adjective noun, verb adverb, adjective noun, verb adverb – which I really only noticed because so many of the examples were unnecessary. “…gleaming wetly” could just have been “gleaming”. This passage is a prime example. “When the ringmaster turned, her too-pale skin reflected the verdant glow like an ethereal wraith. Adding to the menace tonight was a fan of throwing knives hanging from her tightly cinched girdle, the silver tips winking with vicious promise.”

The author also falls into the “how dare you” trap quite a few times as well. Does anybody say this anymore? No, because everybody dares now. The setting for the book might have been a different time but it’s never really explained. The Dreamless City (great, great name) is named and then simply forgotten or ignored despite its potential as an important character in itself in this kind of story.

Many of these stylistic problems could be solved with the help of a good editor – as could the many misspellings, typos, tense switches and sentences that make no sense – and a few more years of practice. As someone who has been writing and editing for twenty-five years and who has a handful of novels that will never be published because I recognise that they were more important as tools to help me refine my writing, I don’t feel patronising saying that. I hope the author doesn’t feel patronised by me saying it.
I see great potential in Tracy Cembor and great potential in this story – that potential just hasn’t been fulfilled yet.

2.5 stars

*First published on Goodreads 29 August 2015

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