The Book of Speculation: Doesn’t quite come together as expected

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler fantasy book reviewsThe Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.

The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler, is one of those perplexing novels I come across now and then where the book has everything I would usually lap up as a reader, but for some reason it falls just a little flat, resulting in a book that is “good enough,” but falls short of the great read I would normally have expected.

In this case, the specific enticing novelistic elements are: a book within a book, a traveling carnival/circus, a non-linear structure, a main character who is a librarian and another who deals in old books, a quirky sense of the strange with an underlying dark current, and an increasing sense of urgency, all of which added up to something slightly less than I would have hoped given that list.

The Book of Speculation opens up with a description of a house teetering on the edge of disaster:

Perched on the bluff’s edge, the house is in danger. Last night’s storm tore land and churned water, littering the beach with bottles, seaweed, and horseshoe crab carapaces. The place where I’ve spent my entire life is unlikely to survive the fall storm season. The Long Island Sound is peppered with the remains of homes and lifetimes, all ground to sand in its grey maw. It is a hunger.

This is a particularly appropriate introductory image, as our young librarian narrator, Simon Watson, has long faced his own sort of erosion in life: the separate deaths of both parents — his mother by suicide and his father from grief soon after — being followed by the younger sister he raised taking off to work at a traveling carnival. Now he is about to face a perfect storm: budget cuts at the local library are threatening his job, he is about to begin a new and somewhat risky romance with his colleague Alice, and most importantly, the impending arrival of a mysterious old water-damaged book with his grandmother’s name in it (also, those horseshoe crabs keep cropping up as well).

The book, an out-of-the-blue gift from antiquarian bookseller Martin Churchwarry, turns out to be the log of a late-1700s traveling circus headed by a proto-P.T. Barnum named Peabody who has gathered around him a family of acts including the intimidating tarot reader and fortune-teller Madame Ryzhkova, Amos the Wild Boy, and Evangeline the entrancing Mermaid. As Simon researches his family’s connection to this odd cast of characters, he uncovers a fearsome history: all the women of his family drown on July 24th, with few of them reaching the age of 30. Adding to the strangeness is that all could hold their breath for extraordinary lengths of time (Simon, who has inherited this family trait along with his sister, can stay underwater for ten minutes). Discovering this tragic line of coincidence would be unnerving enough, but what truly terrifies Simon is what this means for his sister, about to return home for the first time in years, only a few days before the fateful date. Simon’s narration of his current-day issues — researching the book, finding a new job, dealing with the new relationship — alternates with a third-person narrative about Peabody’s circus.

In terms of both plot and character, I found the circus sections to be more engaging. Simon himself is a somewhat passive character, a bit bland and even a little whiny maybe, though admittedly he has his reasons. And to be honest, his employment and relationship tribulations were not all that interesting. Alice, her father Frank (who plays an important role), and Simon’s sister Enola are all pretty flat. Meanwhile, recurring plot threads dealing with a possible job down in Georgia, the drawing of a particular set of tarot cards, and the motivations of Churchwarry never feel like they earn either their page time or their portentous overtones. The arrival of Enola and her boyfriend (the electricity channeler) livens things up, especially the boyfriend, the one character that really appealed to me, but the whole storyline devolves a bit too much into melodrama for my liking. And finally, what should have lent the book an intense urgency — the built-in countdown to July 24th and Enola’s (or might it be Simon’s?) possible watery death somehow dissipates in intensity and feels overpowered by other revelations/events.

On the other hand, the circus characters come fully alive once we turn to their stories, even if the side characters are more compelling than the two “main” character Amos and Evangeline. Peabody and Madame Ryzhkova are wonderful creations, especially in their developing role as distinct adoptive parents of Amos, who was living on his own in the forest before Peabody managed to see through his “vanishing” ability and add him as the Wild Boy attraction, which eventually changed into apprentice fortune-teller under Madame Ryzhkova’s wing. Each of the two adults cares for Amos in his/her way, and each deepening relationship is both endearing and moving. A fellow performer named Benno whom Amos befriends is another strong side character despite his few scenes. I wouldn’t at all have minded spending much more time with these characters and following the circus even further in its adventures.

The magical realism aspect of the novel — the water-breathing gift, the power of water, Enola’s boyfriend, the July 24th drownings, Amos’ vanishing ability — lend a nice bit of underling oddness to this world, but, and I wish I could nail this down more fully for you or explain it better, they just don’t feel wholly there. Instead, save for the boyfriend, they feel too artificially constructed or contrived, though not in that plot contrivance kind of annoying fashion whereby, say, an email goes unread too long or two people just miss seeing each other.

The writing is generally strong throughout The Book of Speculation, and Swyler shows herself capable on more than one occasion of writing some beautiful passages, as when Madame Rzhkova recalls her own father’s ensorcellment/demise:

Stepan, her father, had been burly and strong from working the fields, with a beard thick and black like bearskin but soft as down. She remembered tangling her fingers in it … Across a month she watched her father weaken and their fields go fallow, burning in the sun … Yelena watched him die. Through slender alder trees she’d seen the woman’s luminous skin and laughing eyes, had seen her father reach toward the woman to embrace her. His hand, once so warm and strong, was thin and wasted. His dark bearded face disappeared into the woman’s soot black hair.

Dialogue is consistently smooth and realistic, the language in both description and dialogue shifting as needed between a down-to-earth vocabulary and a more richly evocative tone and construction. Similarly, Swyler deftly handles the transitions between the two time periods and shows a good sense of pacing throughout.

In the end, The Book of Speculation reads like a less engaging/compelling child of The Night Circus and something like The Shadow of the Wind. That isn’t to say it’s derivative of either; it isn’t. But it does give you a sense of the type of reading experience it could have been with a bit more heat to it.

~Bill Capossere


The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler fantasy book reviewsSimon Watson, a librarian, is unexpectedly gifted with a mysterious old book out of the blue, from a man he’s never met: a badly damaged record from a traveling circus. In another unanticipated development in his life, Simon enters into a romantic relationship with his longtime friend and next-door neighbor, Alice, though for now they’re keeping it secret from their co-workers and her parents. Unfortunately everything else in Simon’s life is crumbling: his career, as he’s laid off from his job at the library; his house on the edge of a bluff, which is in danger of sliding into Long Island Sound; his relationship with his only living family member, his younger sister Enola, who ran off to join the circus six years earlier. Worse yet, as Simon begins to research and explore the old book sent to him by a collector because it has one of his ancestors’ names in it, he realizes that the women in his family, who have uncanny abilities to stay underwater (working as a “mermaid” in a circus or carnival is a popular family occupation) always drown on July 24. Enola suddenly gets back in touch to let him know that she’s coming home to visit … and July 24 is only days away.

Erica Swyler alternates chapters telling Simon’s story with chapters telling a related story from the past, about Amos, a mute young man who was abandoned by his family as a young boy and is taken in by the proprietor of a traveling carnival. Amos initially acts as a “Wild Man” in the carnival’s freak show, showcasing his ability to literally vanish and reappear before the spectators’ eyes. As he grows older, Madame Ryzhkova, the fortune teller, adopts Amos as her apprentice, teaching him the secrets of the tarot cards. All goes well, until one stormy night an ethereal girl, whose skin shimmers as if made of water, wanders into their midst and joins the group, and Amos instantly falls in love. Madame Ryzkova is certain the girl, Evangeline, is a Rusalka (water nymph or mermaid), but Amos is deaf to her entreaties to leave Evangeline alone.

As Simon gradually finds out more about his family history, the themes and items from the past and current day become more and more intertwined: circuses with power-filled tarot cards and mermaids. Ominous horseshoe crab invasions. Love fraught with tension. Betrayal. Curses.

The main characters in the present day story, Simon and his sister Enola (whose temperament and dangerous fate echo the WWII bomber Enola Gay), are so flawed that they end up not being particularly likeable. Simon seems to be compelled to take actions that are self-defeating. Amos and Evangeline are more appealing and interesting, though they each have a tragic streak that tends to tip over into fatalism.

Erika Swyler weaves together several intriguing elements in The Book of Speculation, with some enchanting magical realism touches: tarot cards really work, as do curses. Several characters have rather subtle magical abilities, like Amos’ ability to gradually vanish, Enola’s boyfriend’s electric touch, or the ability to hold one’s breath for ten minutes or more, at least if you have some Rusalka blood.

Tarot cards are a recurring device used to move the plot along. It will help your enjoyment of this book if you’re familiar with tarot cards and find them entrancing; but their frequent use failed to resonate with me, though it might appeal more to other readers.

I agree with Bill that the fantastical elements, though I appreciated them, didn’t seem fully integrated into the story. The theme of the titular Book of Speculation remains rather obscure, lacking the impact that it should have had. The Book of Speculation is a rather gloomy and slow-paced novel, and in the end it just didn’t all quite come together for me. It was mildly enjoyable, but like Bill, I think it suffers somewhat in comparison to The Night Circus.

~Tadiana Jones

Publication date: June 23, 2015. Simon Watson, a young librarian, lives alone in a house that is slowly crumbling toward the Long Island Sound. His parents are long dead. His mother, a circus mermaid who made her living by holding her breath, drowned in the very water his house overlooks. His younger sister, Enola, ran off six years ago and now reads tarot cards for a traveling carnival. One June day, an old book arrives on Simon’s doorstep, sent by an antiquarian bookseller who purchased it on speculation. Fragile and water damaged, the book is a log from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700s, who reports strange and magical things, including the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Since then, generations of “mermaids” in Simon’s family have drowned–always on July 24, which is only weeks away. As his friend Alice looks on with alarm, Simon becomes increasingly worried about his sister. Could there be a curse on Simon’s family? What does it have to do with the book, and can he get to the heart of the mystery in time to save Enola? In the tradition of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, The Book of Speculation — with two-color illustrations by the author — is Erika Swyler’s moving debut novel about the power of books, family, and magic.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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2 comments

  1. I agree with this. It was good enough, but not mindblowing (and honestly, not that memorable, given that I just read it a few months ago and could barely remember the details).

  2. I just bought this. I mean I just bought it.

    Well, it looks like a good read.

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