Genre: Fantasy/Gothic Fantasy
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Familiarity in a story can be a double edged sword. It may be comforting to the reader like in romance novels purchased at the grocery store, to others it may be annoying and trite; to always know what is coming next, to not be surprised and maybe even at length be talked down to or taken for a simpleton. Naturally this might be dictated by what you read. An experienced fantasy reader with books by Stephen Donaldson, Ursula K. Leguin or Peter Beagle on their shelf might find Rowling’s Harry Potter books repetitive and borderline plagiarism. That isn’t to say that the end goal for most writers is to not turn out something new, it may be more about if the end result matches that very goal.
Eric Scott Fishcl’s Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show begins in a familiar setting, that of a traveling carnival at the end of the 19th century. To most readers a setting we know well, or at least have an idea of. It comes complete with a barker selling snake oil, a strong man, a singer and freaks. That is where the normalcy, if that can be an accurate description for a carnival, ends. The barker is Dr. Potter himself and the medicine he is trying to push is the Chock-a-saw Sagwa, a tonic that supposedly cures most ailments. He has not concocted it himself, instead there is another doctor, a Dr. Morrison Hedwith of Portland, behind the miracle drink. The Sagwa is the centerpiece of this tale of personal misery and broken figures trying to fight their obvious obstacles. As with most tonics of the age the Sagwa that Dr. Potter sells is useless, but there is a formulae that has other, more sinister effects, ones that he, the strongman Oliver, the Chinaman Fan and the proprietor of the show Lyman Rhoades desperately need. All of them are beholden to Dr. Hedwith due to dark events in their pasts and are therefore forced to help him in his twisted experiments rooted in alchemy. The very fragile balance in the medicine show is constantly threatened as the members regret their decisions, but Lyman exacts vengeance upon them regardless of their usefulness to the mission.
Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show is an excellent example of how to use tropes that have worked well in the past, and by disregarding those that have not successfully creating something fresh. The setting is reminiscent of TV shows like Deadwood or Ripper Street, a general melancholy with a sense of not being able to get out of ones current situation. The descriptions and language are used in a masterful way. The reader becomes instantly immersed in the sadness and sorrow of the characters and the world they inhabit, but there is a beauty and serenity in it, very much like the poems by Baudelaire who is oft quoted by singer turned prostitute in the book. The tempo is fast paced without ever feeling rushed, composed like a thriller the story moves along with ease without ever simplifying words or uncomplicating the plot. It speaks to Fischl’s ability to trust the reader and speaking to the reader’s intelligence. He makes no excuses and the characters suffer and go through hell without mercy and it is refreshing.
Fischl is great at using a variety of tropes belonging to just as varied a genre of literature; The western, the Gothic romance, the urban fantasy, the thriller and classic horror and he uses their various strengths like a master craftsman carrying a toolbox filled with the best tools for a job. The characters are easily recognizable as being plucked from Gothic Horror of Victorian style. The crazed and unethical aristocrat, the young innocent damsel, the idealistic young hero, a horrible assistant and a slew of other figures that make up a rich gallery.
There is a lot that Fischl does right with this book. It is a story about broken people, seemingly feeling like they have no hope and a man preying on them for his own sick and twisted reasons. One could easily see the story being picked up by FX or HBO, it’s that kind of story. That is one of the truly interesting aspects, it has a contemporary feel, the way the tale is told. Fischl has his finger on the pulse of what is going culturally be it TV or genre fiction, but in a late 19th century setting. It melds the credibility of human interest with a fantastical element written well enough to suspend ones disbelief. In the end it makes for a great and wonderful read that won’t disappoint those used to fantasy, horror or suspense.
Familiarity is a double edged sword, a trap that an author might fall into if they are not careful. The waters are tricky to navigate when using tropes from genre fiction, but the ship that Fischl commandeers keeps the reader dry and he does not wreck on the reefs of repetitiveness and triteness. Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show takes what is familiar and makes it original and engaging.