Author: J. Robert King
In Carnival l’Morai you can see your dreams and nightmares. You can see horrors and oddities, performances and putrescences, life and death. No one knows this better than Marie, the beautiful blind juggler. But, despite the roughness of this life, the performers (called freaks) have a close-knit network, a friendliness that helps them through the judgement and the days and nights filled with jeering crowds. But everything changes when Marie goes into her caravan one night only to find the walls and floor coated in blood, the sword swallower dead and impaled on his own sword. Someone is killing the performers. Is it one of their own? Someone in the crowd? Someone from the strange, medieval town of l’Moria? Marie, backed by her friends, Hermos (the man giant) and Morcastle (the magician), seek justice and protection, but in the dark domains of Ravenloft, justice has a way of being perverted and the secrets of the carnival are far more awful than anything Marie could ever have expected.
As the sixth standalone book in the dark fantasy / horror series set in the demi-plane of Ravenloft, a nightmarish realm of gothic evil, Carnival of Fear stands out as a surprisingly solid offering. I’d ignored this particular book for years, partly because Heart of Midnight, third in the series and written by the same author, was not the most robust of the Ravenloft books, and partly because of the lukewarm reviews. Now, as I am approaching the series again with the tint of nostalgia and the desire for completion, reading them in order of publication, I’m glad I finally indulged in Carnival of Fear.
The atmosphere is strong and, more importantly, the characters are complex, believable, and stalwart despite their beleaguered status. As the novel continues, the ghoulish-murder mystery is offset by the brilliantly depicted town of l’Morai and its public trials. The town has an aura evocative of 1800s witch-hunts married to medieval professions and stoicism, creating an eerie yet believable nemesis for the “freaks” to confront. Marie’s compassion alongside her determination and fighting spirit offset nicely against this corrupt world, keeping the readers in suspense and the characters in danger.
As the story unwinds, we meet the Puppet Master, shadow citizen of l’Moria and leader of the rag-tag carnival. Behind his creepy ways is the truth about the killings, a truth that is growing ever more complicated and intwined with the history of the town and the performers themselves.
The revelation is ultimately shattering, satisfying, and surprising in equal parts. There are moments when the impracticality of the tale shines through – the performer’s resilient fighting in the obvious presence of defeat, Marie’s perfect ability to lead despite having no experience as a “general,” etc. But those moments are sparse and easily forgivable because of the emotive nature of the story, one that is equal parts suspense and brooding, gothic horror.
Carnival of Fear is a strong addition to the Ravenloft repertoire, spooky and atmospheric and ultimately haunting in that perfect, poignant way. Highly recommended.
The Ravenloft Series
Carnival of Fear (you are here)
The Enemy Within
Tower of Doom
Baroness of Blood
Death of a Darklord
Scholar of Decay
King of the Dead
To Sleep With Evil
Lord of the Necropolis
I, Strahd: The Memories of a Vampire
I, Strahd: The War Against Azalin
Specter of the Black Rose
The Black Crusade
– Frances Carden
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