Margo Crestley is an alchemist mixing elixirs in the Dreamless City without a license. When the district crime lord threatens blackmail, Margo pins her hopes on someone she has not seen in four years — her twin brother Leonard.
Sold to the traveling Gaslight Carnival by the twins’ father, Leonard is treated like property. Margo scrimps and saves to buy his freedom, but the Ringmaster is unwilling to let him go. The young alchemist can only win her brother back if she participates in the capricious Ringmaster’s cruel games.
Time is running out. The crime lord’s threats are turning violent, and the Gaslight Carnival will soon be gone. The giant glowing balloons and striped carnival tents are set up for three days only before disappearing for another year along with the daredevil stunts, the freak show, and the rigged games of chance. Can Margo save her twin brother in time, or will she be left alone to face the crime lord herself?
This is an interesting novella, with a lot of promise that it unfortunately doesn’t quite live up to.
The setting is steampunk, but aside from some mentions of the “Steam Meister” we don’t get to hear much about the “Dreamless City” the story supposedly takes place in. Which is a shame, because that’s a fantastic name with a lot of story potential. I just wish it had been realized a bit more.
As for the novella itself, it’s a neat little story with some interesting characters (I fell for Rook a little bit) that is hampered by the quality of the writing. Comma splices, an excess of adjectives, some stilted lines of dialogue…nothing that a thorough round of editorial attention wouldn’t fix, but it was distracting while reading.
I also questioned some of the characterization. Drescher and Vellura both monologue like cartoon villains, and Margo goes from being so panicked about her scars she won’t take off her scarf to saying nothing when they dress her up in a “scoop-necked blouse”?? Then there’s also her abrupt turnaround on the issue of using alchemy against people, and her shift in motivation to face the ringleader “for everyone” which I didn’t feel had enough grounding in the story.
But despite all of these comments I do want to emphasize the fact that I enjoyed the story, and there were definitely moments that shone. In particular, I want to highlight the second task. In my opinion it was creative, tense, well-written, and with an interesting resolution that furthered both plot and characterization. So I think Tracy Cembor has a lot of promise, and I hope she keeps writing. This one just wasn’t quite there yet.