Review: Carniepunk

Reviewed by Jen

I’m a little late getting around to reading this 2013 collection of carnival themed short stories, but I learned it included a prequel to a series I am reading now and I wanted to check it out. I found the stories to be very uneven, both in tone and in how much I enjoyed them. But there were enough engaging entries, I found it worth the read.

Painted Love – This is the first thing I have ever read by Rob Thurman and I have to say, it was a bit odd. It follows the observations of Doodle, an enigmatic traveler who attaches himself to a man named Bart, a sociopath working at a carnival. The story is told entirely through Doodle’s eyes, though he does not participate much in the action. To be honest, I thought he was a dog until his true form was revealed at the end. Didn’t get much out of this one.

The Three Lives of Lydia – This Delilah S Dawson story was jacked up. It starts out with a woman waking up naked and alone in a carnival in sort of an alternate universe. She comes across various supernaturals, including Charley who is a vampire type that calls himself a Bludman. This quickly develops into a romance but then a giant twist left me staring at my Kindle with my mouth hanging open. I don’t know what to tell you about this one other than the fact it was twisted.

The Demon Barker of Wheat Street (Kevin Hearne) – I’ve never read anything in the Iron Druid world, so maybe that’s why this story didn’t connect for me. It was a first person POV from a centuries-old druid, taking his apprentice back to her hometown to check on mother (who thinks she is dead.) Mom ends up being out of town, so they go to a carnival. (I guess you’ve just got to go with it.) And they take their giant invisible psychic dog. It turns out, there’s a demon and some ghouls killing folks at the fair and reaping their souls. The narrator and his posse have to use their magic and fighting skills to take the bad guys down. There was a lot of talk about the series world-building and backstory and I found myself uninterested—not only in that—but even the fight. Maybe this would be a bigger hit for fans of the series, but I was bored and had to fight the urge to skim ahead.

The Sweeter the Juice (Mark Henry) – This contribution was not for me. It’s a zombie apocalypse story told from the POV of an AMAB transgender narrator. The biting humor (no pun intended) didn’t sit well with me. I got as far as the narrator showing up at a doctor’s office filled with “ugly men in make-up and hard women in stenciled sideburns” and saying, “Don’t get me wrong, I love my people; just don’t expect me to be attracted to them” before I quit. Life is too short.

The Werewife (Jaye Wells) – This story was a relief, after I had began to fear this entire anthology was not for me. It centers around Brad and his wife Annie who has recently become a werewolf. These two have a some marital problems, but the biggest seems to be the fact she keeps killing all the animals in their neighborhood every full moon. Anyway, it turns out she was cursed at a carnival and when it returns to town a year later, they seek out the woman who turned her, hoping to set things right. And it was fun and moved fast and kept my attention from beginning to end. This was a good one.

The Cold Girl – Another good one… this one from Rachel Caine. The protagonist, Kiley, is younger than those in the other stories. She’s 16 and so in love with her boyfriend Jamie she can’t see that he’s evil. It’s during a trip to the carnival she discovers his secret and it costs her or life. Or does it? This story was dark, engaging, and satisfying. Plus, I found the title character to be very cool. Worth reading.

A Duet With Darkness – This Allison Pang story made me remember how much I enjoyed the Abby Sinclair series… but I only recall bits and pieces because it’s been about six years since I read those books. Anyway, this is a prequel that focuses on Abby’s friend Melanie and tells the story of how her soul became trapped in the Devil’s violin and gives us a glimpse of her early relationship with Nobu. I liked this story, even if Mel was a bit pumped up on her own ego. She paid the price for it. A good sampling for anyone who might be considering going back to read that series.

Recession of the Divine – I’ve read from Hillary Jacques before but those books were under the name Regan Summers. Her offering is a standalone focusing on a Greek goddess who has decided to live among the humans, as (of all things) an insurance investigator. She is looking into a fire when she is enslaved by a carnie who would use her gifts. Unfortunately, she is more than even he understands and she turns the tables, ending his string of crimes. I had a hard time connecting to this one and I guess the premise was a bit weird for me. Not bad, but not my favorite in the collection.

Parlor Tricks – I enjoyed this short from Jennifer Estep’s Elemental Assassin series. It follows Gin and her sister Bria as they investigate the disappearance of a young girl at a carnival. It samples a wide range of elemental abilities and does a good job telling a full story in a short time, while maintaining the overall feel of the series. This would be a good sampling for a new reader or a fun, quick slice of life for fans.

Freak House – I really enjoyed this offering by Kelly Meding. Honestly, it was the reason I picked up this anthology six years after it came out. I’ve been reading her current series and learned that this prequel story existed. In it, we meet Shiloh, a half djinn who learns her powerful father has been kidnapped and is being held captive in a paranormal freak show. Here, she meets up with Julius and a werewolf named Will and they infiltrate the show to stage a rescue. This is the foundation of the squad that exists in the future books. Good stuff and a great introduction into the world.

The Inside Man (Nicole Peeler) – This is another story that made me nostalgic for a series that ended long ago. I was such a fan of the Jane True books. And though Jane does not appear in this short, it is very reminiscent of the series tone and feel. It centers on Capitola and her partners, Shar and Moo as they investigate a case of people’s souls being stolen in a succession of towns. It ends up bringing them face to face with a creepy possessed clown who steals people’s memories. It is entertaining and you don’t have to be familiar with this series to enjoy it. One of the best additions to the anthology.

A Chance in Hell – Jackie Kessler’s contribution to the book is part of her Hell on Earth series, which I have never read. But the author does a pretty good job of grounding the story with background details. Jezebel is a former succubus who has recently become human in a bid to one day kill the king of the underworld and take his place, thereby stopping Armageddon. Here, she is just trying to have a little fun with her friend at the carnival when a greed demon tries to leverage her friend’s soul in exchange for Jezabel’s own. It has a fun opening scene and did make me intrigued about the series.

Hell’s Menagerie (Kelly Gay) – The Charley Madigan series has been on my TBR for a long time and this story makes me more excited to give it a try. It is told by Charley‘s 12 year old daughter, Emma‘s, point of you. She and her djinn father figure are in the underworld behind her mothers back, searching for some kidnapped hell hound puppies. Emma can communicate with animals and she uses that gift to help infiltrate and rescue the menagerie which had been kidnapped and essentially forced into captivity. I am very curious about the world building and Rex the djinn, and I think this series has moved up a slot in my soon to be read list.

Daughter of the Midway, the Mermaid, and the Open Lonely Sea – Seanan McGuire wrote this melancholy story about the daughter of a mermaid in a traveling carnival who is coming to understand who and what she is. Her entire life, they have stayed away from Alabama and now they have returned to the town where they found her mom. All the secrets of where ate it came from our delivered, perhaps in some of the worst ways possible. This is haunting and very well written. A great standalone to wrap up the anthology

Overall rating: B/B-

*ARC provided by someone a million years ago

Click to purchase: Amazon

by Various Authors
Release Date: July 23, 2013
Publisher: Gallery Books

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