This is the latest book, released at Bristolcon this year, from Joanne Hall, whose duology, The Art of Forgetting, so impressed me – read my review of Rider here. My copy of Spark and Carousel was provided by the author on the understanding that if I enjoyed the book, I would review it, but did I enjoy it as much as her previous work?
Liathan is struggling to care for his master and mentor, who is slowly losing his mind. Carousel, street dancer and acrobat, is excited at the prospect of being allowed to work in one of the bawdy houses in the dry and wearing pretty clothes – how hard can it be? Allorise is desperate to avoid marrying an old man with rotting teeth and a big gut, just to advance her father’s schemes. These three characters come together in an explosive mixture that engulfs a city and threatens the Kingdom…
I’ve taken liberties with the rather chatty blurb because Hall’s plotting is too enjoyable to be Spoiled by prior knowledge of what is going to happen. From the start, we have enjoyable, sympathetic characters with engrossing problems, along with a fair dollop of humour. But do be warned. Hall’s smooth, readable style is deceptive – she reels you into her world and then suddenly ambushes you with an unexpected twist you don’t see coming. I found Carousel’s journey, in particular, a hard one to follow at times…
While the scenario is a familiar one, with a powerful, yet unskilled magic-user causing major damage – the vividness of the world-building, the strong characterisation and the accelerating pace as the story gathers momentum makes this offering stand out. I’m reminded of Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise in the sheer energy of the writing and intelligent plotting.
Hall has the knack of providing interestingly nuanced characters – no one is whiter than white. So our protagonists all have their flaws and the main antagonist, Allorise, is clearly charming and facing a miserable existence. The fact that her way of dealing with it is extreme and leads her down a steadily darker path is both believable and jaw dropping. However my favourite character is Carousel, the spiky street kid, who is negotiating becoming a woman in a mileu where that process is a commodity – something Hall doesn’t flinch from.
If you like your fantasy intelligently written with fully rounded characters and a full-on scenario, then track down this offering. I’ve read a crop of really good fantasy recently and Spark and Carousel is right up there with the best of them.