Review: A Festival of Skeletons

By Harry Markov

Astruc, R. J. A Festival of Skeletons. December 2010. $8.99 USD (print)/ $4.00 (ebook).

Talking about A Festival of Skeletons without mentioning the cover would be a bit like committing a crime. Look at it closely. Step back and then look again. I think that the cover does a great job of summarizing the plot, representing the novel’s core idea and setting the proper expectations.

Yes, this will be a hilarious tale of a fugly redhead midget in a pink dress [among other fashion choices], a predatory merwoman, a fat kitchenhand, a sour policewoman, and a few maniacs for colour. Yes, there will be undead. Yes, I bet my spleen that you’ll laugh.

The team at Crossed Genres surprised me with the decision to publish a novel, but having read R. J. Astruc’s mind-bending dark comedy, I can agree as to why. Fantasy needs new faces in the humorous section. Perhaps it speaks poorly of me, but when I have to think of humorous fantasy, I recall only one name: Terry Pratchett. Now, I’ve read in several reviews how Astruc is compared to Pratchett. While Atruc’s Kamphor can compete with Ankh-Morpork in its absurdity and while Astruc uses biting humor to criticize aspects of the modern society, I’d say that Astruc has an entirely different voice:

Sink’s manner, however, swiftly proved unsuitable for the Emperor’s court. He had a tendency to show up in women’s lingerie and make disruptive comments when people were slow in passing him the salt. ‘Twenty-two years, six months, four days and counting,’ he’d murmur sepulchrally from his chair at the offending Duke or Duchess, or, ‘Watch out you don’t choke on your dinner, won’t you?’

OR

‘I’m seventeen,’ said Percy.

‘I’m forty six,’ said Vona. ‘But I only grew limbs five years ago.’

‘I can be a bit of a bastard to women,’ said Percy.

‘I ate a sailor once,’ said Vona.

‘I’m pretty good in bed,’ said Percy.

‘I don’t breathe with my mouth,’ said Vona.

Percy took her hand in his and sighed. ‘Oh, Vona,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘We’re bloody perfect for each other.’

Astruc’s humour is a bit darker; a bit more biting; a bit more sneering, down and dirty; and has the charm of a drag queen [during Benny’s scenes]. If humour were the moon, Astruc would be the dark side, because she managed to insert humour into things such as zombie apocalypses, massacres, serial killers, and cannibalism. The events happening in the novel receive the Looney Tunes treatment. I almost expected ACME to make a brief cameo.

With the humour set aside, I’d have to say that A Festival of Skeletons is more character-driven than anything else. Pleasure comes from reading the internal monologues of characters such as Benny Sink, the cross-dressing mortician, who can pin down the day, the hour and the second of somebody’s death; Arifia Fowles, the newly-recruited police officer with a short fuse and a penchant for being right; Vona Urgath, the misanthropic and hostile merkind motivated to climb to the top of the corporate ladder workplace; and Joshua Finkle, the creepy, too-nice-to-be-normal mortician’s assistant.

Whatever issues are within the novel arise are in the plot department. At the beginning of A Festival of Skeletons, Astruc foreshadows how the status quo in Kamphor will change. As the story progressed, I was treated to Benny’s deathtelling powers being off, new serial murders, and the possible involvement of a necromancer. Through the first third or so, I didn’t have a great sense of what thread to follow in order to guess where the bulk of the plot was headed. It’s not entirely clear which of all the symptoms caused the magical flux that forebodes doom and destruction.

When the bigger arc did crystallize and the villains were more-or-less revealed, I had new issues. Ones that dealt with the subplots. Normally, I don’t mind when the author withholds information. It’s a bit of a challenge from the author to the reader to see how closely said reader’s been paying due attention. However, Astruc overdoes it. At one point, Percy (the kitchen hand) realizes what Joshua is and…well…we don’t get to learn. Then a merkind Sentinel reveals to Percy what he is. Again, I did not get to learn it until later.

Now, had this been a novel with, say, three characters, I wouldn’t have minded at all. I know how to piece clues together and make my own conclusions. It’s fun to discover things on your own without the author there to spoon-feed it you, but in this case, I followed six characters with a lot of subplots interwoven in the main arc and more clues spread throughout the novel, both direct and indirect. To recap, in this instance, withholding information was a no-no.

Even so, A Festival of Skeletons remains a must-read. It’s a cruel, humorous page-turner for the wicked at heart. Astruc is a short-story veteran, which explains her self-assured, consistent style and established identity. As Rotten Tomatoes would say: Certified Fresh.

Bio: Harry Markov: Priest of the Elder Gods of Weirdness, bookaholic, novelist, and freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter at @harrymarkov.

A Festival of Skeletons is available from the publisher.