Begin with the Pacific Northwest of 1878. Add heaping of magic circus here, a little bit of weird west there, plus a pinch of steampunk aesthetic for flavor. Stir in an unforgettable cast of characters, and mix well for a wonderfully dark debut full of atmospheric worldbuilding.
This novel caught me by surprise. I was drawn in by the cover, but knew little else beyond the premise of a “magical traveling show.” If you’ve read Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, you’ll understand why my interest was piqued, debut author Eric Scott Fischl takes a different tack than Morgenstern, grounding the story in the gritty details of post-Civil War America reality rather than the ethereal, dreamlike world of the Night Circus. Oddly, it’s in those gritty details we find the beauty and magic of Fischl’s wonderful brew.
Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show opens on Dr. Potter himself, hawking a cure-all called the Chock-a-saw Sagwa Tonic, the proverbial snake oil elixir meant to cure all ills, both spiritual and physical. The show is doing more than selling this supposed miracle drug—it also boasts a chanteuse and sometimes prostitute named Mercy, the fortune teller Ah Fan, Oliver the Strong Man, and the illusionist Lyman Rhoades. But as with any traveling show, nothing is as it seems: Lyman is the real boss behind it all, and the Sagwa tonic has a much darker purpose than advertised.
Lyman Rhoades and Alexander Potter have a secret. They’ve both lived a lot longer than they should have, thanks to something called The Salt, mixed up by alchemist Morrison Hedwith. Hedwith and Rhoades are seeking the ultimate elixir of life, however, and the Salt isn’t potent enough. Like good scientists, the two men began to conduct experiments—first on a small scale with dying soldiers during the Civil War. Potter, a Civil War surgeon, is unwillingly recruited, and the experiments get more ambitious. Batches of Sagwa are spiked with Salt, and each iteration produces ghastly results—and new additions to a traveling freak show. It’s the perfect cover story.
Ethics is a key theme here. We’ve got a scientist and an out-of-control sorcerer conducting mass experiments on humans in secret. The Tuskegee Experiments of the 1930s, the Agent Orange Experiments of the ‘70s, and the Project 4.1 study of radiation fallout from Bikini Atoll show secret experimentation on human subjects is far from the stuff of science fiction and fantasy. Fischl does a fantastic job illustrating the moral struggles the various characters face as they begin to learn the dark truths of the traveling show, a theme that comes to the fore most effectively via half-brothers, Solomon Parker and Agamemnon Rideout, who show up a little late party.
Ag and Sol are already dealing with the emotional fallout of a bar fight turned murder when they happen upon a drunk dentist named Josiah, bent on revenge. Josiah, who is a pathetic bit of comic relief in dark times, and hires the two would-be outlaws to murder Hedwith in retaliation for killing his wife with the experimental Sagwa. The entirety of Ag and Sol’s character arcs deal with how they feel about their newfound status as villains, whether or not they should take the job or just rob the dentist, and ultimately, how to they should deal with their discovery of the unethical experiments.
“In reality, Sol is far less sanguine about the idea of becoming a gun for hire than he lets on. Even though this opportunity has landed right in their laps, which is perhaps a sign of divine providence, it feels wrong. In a fight and, to be fair, drunk, he knows now that he could kill a man, if called upon, as much as it keeps him up at night… The idea of just up and shooting some stranger he doesn’t know, though, some respectable city doctor, in cold blood, just because another man had paid him to do so, that doesn’t sit quite square in his mind… Paying someone to do your own dirty work doesn’t seem right although, Sol supposes, that’s the way of the world more often than not, if one has money.”
As much as I love Ag and Sol, and many of the other characters, I do regret that the female characters don’t have as much in the way of agency. It could be largely a symptom of the time period, but there’s vast potential in Elizabeth, Josiah’s sister, who’s come to find him and bring him home. Unfortunately, her journey occurs mainly off screen, and by the time we meet her, her purpose is more about being treated as an object. Still, this is an impressive book: the world is richly imagined, and the characters are vividly drawn. The mysteries are teased out at just the right pace, and I couldn’t put it down. If this show rolls around again, I’ll be first in line for a ticket.