The Mystifying Medicine Show by J C Bemis

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The Mystifying Medicine Show by J C Bemis

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Stefan Bachmann
Reviewed by Stefan Bachmann
Summary: A great big mash-up of magic, monsters, pirates, circuses, American folklore and steampunk. It has some problems with pacing, takes an inexcusably large number of pages to get going, but otherwise an enjoyable and fairly unique adventure tale.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: July 2009
Publisher: OUP
ISBN: 978-0192755674

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Ray Cobb and his little sister, Sally, are traveling by train across an alternate 19th century America on their way to be adopted. Ray, fearing his unruly nature will ruin Sally's chances of getting a good home, concocts a brilliant plan that involves abandoning her and jumping off the back of the speeding train. He pulls the whole thing off with surprisingly little damage, either emotional or physical, and sets off on foot to make his fortune. After days of wandering through the swamps of the deep south, he is picked up by the motley crew of a traveling medicine show (a sort of amped-up apothecary with sword-swallowers and snake charmers on the side). They welcome him in, and it's not long before he's feeling right at home. But there's more to this band of misfits than meets the eye, and as Ray travels with them he begins to uncover secrets that will change his life forever.

So, let's start with the good, shall we? I liked general setting of The Mystifying Medicine Show immensely. It takes place in an alternate America just after the Civil War, and combines historical fantasy, one of my two favourite sub-genres, with steampunk (an amalgam of Victoriana and steam/clockwork-driven technology), the other of my two favourite sub-genres. The world the author has created is fanciful, original and a bit bizarre, populated with all kinds of odd and wonderful creatures, both human and otherwise. One gets a real sense of discovery exploring it through Ray's eyes. Two particularly memorable elements are a hat that turns its wearer into dandelion seedpods, and a giant clockwork wolf that moves in a mist of icy cold.

But atmosphere and flights of fancy can't make up for Show's glacial pacing. It starts at a crawl and just keep crawling on and on and on. Let me summarize. The first third of the book is a slog through endless set-up, vague exposition, pointless back-story... Just one big bunch of padding. The writing is less assured during this portion, and fails to establish a consistent tone. All we get is a string of seemingly random scenes, occurrences, and coincidences (too many of the latter) without even uniform writing to link them together. The author finds his way over the next hundred pages and the story finally begins to engage; it becomes fun and entertaining, but there's still no suspense. Why? Because the reader has no idea what's going on! Cryptic mentions are made of something (or someone. Ooh, mysterious...) called a Gog who is killing these other people called Ramblers, and that this Gog fellow is building a machine. Since we don't know anything about the Gog, or what Ramblers are, or whether said machine is a nuclear bomb or a cuckoo clock, there's no compelling reason to care about any of this. During the final third, a potentially interesting conflict arises and the book races headlong towards its rather spectacular, blockbuster-style climax.

So the last part's great. All's well that ends well, right? I suppose, but only if you actually get to the end, and I'm thinking many never will.

On the subject of characters: the majority are relatively nondescript apart from outward quirks. The author casts a bevy of American stereotypes in secondary roles (a mystical American Indian, a Chinese girl with a magical tattoo, a black strong-man who is gentle and quiet), for no other reason than to add colour. Thanks to plenty of wooden characterization, though, they don't add anything at all. A notable exception is Jolie. She's a siren/mermaid with a wholly believable, three-dimensional personality and her scenes are some of the best in the book.

So with some heartless editing and a major restructuring of the first third, this book could have been great fun. As it is, it may very well lose its audience long before the good parts come into play towards the end. Still, this is a new author with a great imagination and I will definitely be interested in seeing what he does next.

Thanks goes to Oxford Children's Books for sending Bookbag a proof copy.

Further reading suggestion: For a delightful and totally satisfying circus-themed adventure check out The Palace of Laughter by Jon Berkeley, and it's sequel The Tiger's Egg. If you'd like an altogether more subdued and darker novel, yet with similar motifs, take a look at Puppet Master by Joanne Owen.

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Buy The Mystifying Medicine Show by J C Bemis at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Mystifying Medicine Show by J C Bemis at


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