Spectacle, Jodie Lynn Zdrok (Tor Teen 978-0-7653-9968-7, $17.99, 359pp, hc) February 2019.
Author Jodie Lynn Zdrok’s Paris initially reads as quite familiar to fans of historical fiction. It’s 1887 and the Eiffel Tower is under construction, the Catacombs are open for tours, and every morning bodies “found in the public domain” are displayed at the morgue. Anyone and everyone lines up for a brief glimpse of the dead. The unlikely “show” offers a chance to find someone who has gone missing or, for many, an opportunity to gawk. It is a macabre form of entertainment that thrives in a city full of people in search of cheap amusement. It is also the place that 16-year-old Nathalie Baudin regularly spends part of her day. As the secret author of the daily morgue column for Le Petit Journal, it is Nathalie’s job to describe the dead to the newspaper’s eager readers, and, as disturbing as that task might be, Nathalie has a special knack for coming up with just the right words to describe what she sees. Then one day she touches the glass separating the crowd from a newly arrived murder victim and elements of the gruesome crime are revealed before her eyes. That’s when the novel leaves history behind and the paranormal aspects of Spectacle take grisly flight.
Nathalie is an unlikely reporter, but her reasons for the job make immediate sense. Her father is away at sea, her mother has suffered a recent accident, leaving her unable to work as a seamstress, and a family friend at Le Petit Journal has given the teen a job suited to her writerly talents to supplement their suddenly diminished income. The day she touches the morgue glass to get a closer look at the murder victim laid out on the other side, she suffers a fit of clairvoyance that nearly causes her to faint. Nathalie has no idea what has happened nor what it means, and her experience is quickly complicated by the fact that the morgue attendant witnessed the episode and suspects she might know more about the crime than she lets on. As she struggles to make sense of what she has “seen,” Nathalie also suffers from a loss of memory and begins to think perhaps she might have unwittingly been involved in the attack on the dead girl. Then another victim appears and the murderer begins to taunt Paris through the pages of Le Petit Journal. Days later it gets even worse when the killer begins to directly taunt Nathalie. Enlisting the aid of a good friend and confiding in the morgue attendant, she sets out to figure out what is going on and how she has ended up in the middle of it.
Zdrok brings late-19th-century Paris to life in Spectacle, filling the pages with descriptions of the city of lights. As Nathalie and her friends race from place to place, tracking the killer and trying to understand better the source of her continuing visions, the city itself is front and center in an extended game of bloody cat and mouse. There is also an intriguing yet critical scientific subplot that, while fantastic, fits well into the era of technological advancement and fascination with the supernatural. And while the villainy might seem to be overly drawn out, Zdrok does an excellent job of keeping readers guessing as to just how much everyone knows about Nathalie’s plight. There’s also a sly romance that teases at the edges of the plot (or does it…) and, delightfully, several lovely examples of female friendship in this time of social change. While the story ends (thankfully!) without a cliffhanger, there is an excellent hint at the sequel (Exposition due next year), which readers will certainly look out for. Murder, mayhem, a smart girl reporter, hints of mad science, a tragedy in an asylum (stroke of genius!) and a life-or-death battle in the Catacombs of Paris – what more could you want in a novel? Zdrok serves up a lot of detecting fun in Spectacle and it should earn her many fans.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the June 2019 issue of Locus.
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