by Kate Milford
Recommended Ages: 12+
Natalie is a strange girl who lives in a strange small town called Arcane, Mo. in the early 20th century. Before she truly realizes how strange she and it are (because she has never known anything different), she becomes a witness to and participant in goings-on of all-surpassing strangeness. It starts when the local doctor tootles out of town in his jalopy, after Natalie's dad – the town's bicycle mechanic – gives it a bit of a tune-up. The doctor is bound for the next town over, which has been struck by a plague of influenza. But as soon as he leaves, several concerning developments arrive. For one, Natalie begins to notice that there is something wrong with her mother, something the local pharmacist isn't prepared to deal with. For another, a sinister traveling medicine show arrives from the direction the doctor was headed. Their travel plans are paused by a bit of the bad luck that haunts the abandoned town at the crossroads a few miles up the road from Arcane. So they decide to offer their nostrums and panaceas to the good townsfolk, in a carnival-like atmosphere filled with vaguely disturbing sights and sounds.
As Natalie tries to figure out just what makes Dr. Jake Limberleg's medicine show tick – a very apt verb, there – she is accompanied at times by a couple of local boys who are mostly interested in seeing moving pictures, and a girl named Miranda who seems to consider it her mission in life to question everything Natalie does, but who later proves to be her most reliable friend. She also spends a good deal of time pushing around an old-fashioned bicycle that she hasn't figured out how to ride yet, though she won't admit it to anybody, and fiddling with a miniature automaton of the Wright Brothers' first-flight airplane, which she can't quite get to work. Meanwhile, the medicine fair is absolutely crawling with automata that shouldn't work, but somehow do. The more Natalie finds out about Limberleg and Co., the more disturbed she feels – and you'll share her unease.
This is a tale full of dreadful omens, weird characters and creepy stories-within-the-story that turn out to be closer to the truth than makes one comfortable. It has devils in it, not to mention the big-D Devil. It has at least two characters who serve as examples of how dangerous it is to deal personally with Old Scratch. It has in it beings perhaps even stranger than these, some of them gradually becoming so scary that you might have to put the book down and pace up and down the room a few times. It has material that will make you laugh out loud and get choked up with emotion. It creates a place where folklore comes to life, and where a very perceptive girl turns out to have a crucial role. It has an all but unbearable climax. Its originality, intelligence and gut-level intensity will leave a lasting impression. Note to self: Remember this book when Robbie Awards time comes round again.
Not to be confused with the steampunk novel Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, this book has a prequel titled The Broken Lands. Kate Milford is also the author of four Greenglass House books – Greenglass House, Ghosts of Greenglass House, Bluecrowne and The Thief Knot – and the novel The Left-Handed Fate.