Review: Carnies by Martin Livings

After the controversy of my last post (yeah, I poked that bear), it’s review time again! And yes, that sentence deserved a ‘screamer’. I’ve read eight novels so far this year, and while that might not be a lot for others, compared to last year, I’m killing it. As an editor, I read a lot — flash fiction, shorts, novellas, novels (in all genres) — but that’s a different kind of reading; approached in an entirely different way. Reading for pleasure, where I can disengage the editor in me and just immerse myself in a story and sidle up to characters, is something I’ve really missed.

So I’ve dived back into my mammoth ‘to read’ pile, and Carnies by Martin Livings (published through Cohesion Press) was at the top of said pile. As with the last couple of reviews, this one also comes with a disclaimer. The Australian spec-fic community is a small and close-knit one – if you don’t know someone, you know of them. Martin is a friend of mine (and all ‘round nice guy – he loves cats), and we’ve also had short stories appear in the same publications. I soon became a fan of his short works, so I was very much looking forward to reading a longer piece. But before we go any further, it’s spoiler alert time:

 

HERE A SPOILER, THERE A SPOILER, EVERYWHERE A SPOILER, SPOILER!

carnies

 

The title alone tells you we’re heading into carnival territory, and I was hoping this was going to be an old-school carnival with all its oddities and ‘freaks’ that had a more… otherworldly feel to it than the almost antiseptic feel of what passes as a carnival today. I wasn’t disappointed.

Carnies follows the story of brothers David and Paul Hampden. David, a journalist in a spiralling career, has gotten wind of a creepy carnival in country Australia that might just revitalise his career. He enlists younger brother Paul, a sometimes photographer, to join him. David and Paul are somewhat estranged; it’s not just the large age gap, but the ultra-religious (read: fire and brimstone) upbringing at their father’s hand after their mother’s disappearance. Both men want to bridge the gap that’s developed between them over the years.

The minute the brothers drive into Tillbrook, they know (as does the reader) that something’s not quite right. It doesn’t take long for that ‘not quite right’ to show itself. A close-call that almost results in a car accident reignites the animosity between the brothers, but it’s put aside when the men head to the carnival that night.

This is the start of the brothers taking different path to the somewhat same destination. The carnies have been in Tillbrook for … well, forever, really, and the townsfolk grudgingly live alongside them. Later in the book we discover that this is due to a pact made a hundred years ago with the town and the carnies’ forebears. The arrival of David, and more specifically Paul, tears the final threads of that fraying pact apart.

At its heart, this is a story of familial bonds, of blood ties that are, in essence, impossible to deny but also as tenuous as a spider’s web. Both Paul and David sit at opposite sides of this blood – both drawn from the same vial but poles apart.

The carnies are werewolves, and while Paul is enamoured with the Alpha female, Rachel, he comes into his own via a bite from a ‘bitch’ further down the totem pole. His fate (destiny?) is sealed, and he finds a sense of belonging he’s been wanting.

werewolf 1

When Paul goes missing, David goes in search, and with the help of a secretive town “council” hell bent on destroying the carnies, manages to step in so much dog doo-doo, you know it’s not going to end well.

After an attempted extraction that fails in spectacular fashion, Paul, giving into his animal instincts, bites his brother in the throat, believing he’s killed him. He doesn’t, of course, and this sets up a finale that pits brother against brother.

It’s during David’s turning we discover the bloodline runs through both men via their mother. David doesn’t turn well; he hears the fundamentalist voice of his father, directing him to his own personal jihad. He does this well, pretty much taking out the Alpha male, Amos, in a very bloody fashion, but his plans unravel in the final confrontation with Paul.

I’m not going to spoil the ending of the book – read it, it’s a hell of a finale.

This is a great read, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read a werewolf story (and the turn from human to wolf is done remarkably well by Livings), let alone one that engaged me so well. It’s a well-written story, with threads tangling all the players – none of which is ever really as it seems.

It’s not a perfect story (what story ever really is?). When David is bitten, his body isn’t collected with all the others in the clean-up – makes no sense. But my main gripe would be what I call the ‘missing scene’. When David kidnaps the Alpha male, Amos, we only see the aftermath of that confrontation. Amos has been tortured and maimed – it would have been a great to see the dichotomy between the two enemies. What information did David get from Amos? Did he get any at all? It was an opportunity missed, in my mind.

Overall, Carnies is great read, and I was happily immersed in the world Livings had created, and I’d have happily spent more time there. There are no happy endings with this story, but it is open for a sequel (which I would definitely read), but I’m told this won’t be happening. It’s a shame, as it’s a very cool world Livings has created.

Four and half stars

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