Veronica G. Henry’s 2021 Bacchanal is a standalone historical fantasy novel.
Baton Rogue in 1939 has very little to recommend itself to Eliza Meek. It’s too bad that having landed in Baton Rogue, Eliza has yet to find the means to escape it. Not only is Eliza on the wrong side of the colour line, but her unusual talents terrify the citizens of Baton Rouge.
Salvation arrives in the form of the Bacchanal Carnival.
Mundanes may value Eliza’s ability to communicate with animals but they don’t appreciate the frequency with which her communicants drop dead while she is trying to link with them. To Clay Kennel, purported owner/manager of the carnival, Eliza’s knack makes her a potentially valuable entertainer. Certainly, she will not stand out amidst the carnival’s collection of (what a less enlightened age might have called) freaks.
Bitter over having been rejected by her birth family, Eliza is happy to find a found family in the carnival. Even better than acceptance, she gains mentors: some of her new companions are knowledgeable about the occult. She even finds a beau, a fellow named Jamie.
Life in the carnival is more comfortable if one turns a blind eye to some minor irregularities. Such as the fact that some of the carnival performers are not so much unusual as cursed, even monstrous. Such as the fact that fewer patrons leave the carnival than the number that first entered the fairgrounds.
Most important: Eliza would be very well advised not to notice management’s red trailer, the vehicle that accompanies the carnival to all of its venues, the vehicle into which no one can enter but Clay. Pay too much attention to the red trailer and its occupant — Akihu, the true owner of the Bacchanal Carnival — may take too close an interest in you. That’s not a development you will survive.
The publisher bills this as a historical fantasy. One might also make the case that it is horror, if only because it features a carnival.
Despite the fact the carnival is owned by a soul-eating demon, not to mention the fact that a number of the carnival’s performers are themselves dangerous, either because they cannot fully control their supernatural gifts or because they are anthropophagous monsters … it’s not clear that working there is any more dangerous to Eliza than it would be to just live in any given American town in 1940. It’s not just that she’s black, it’s that she’s gifted. At any moment the citizens might decide that her knack is more scary than useful.
Indeed, owner Akihu would argue that she is a decent boss to all of her hard-working employees. Only the extremely lazy, the excessively nosy, and the potential threats will be fed to her anthropophagous dwarf Eloku or slurped down like a screaming oyster by Akihu herself. The demon sincerely considers herself a friend to some of her minions, and regrets that some, like Clay Kennel, feel more terror than gratitude. It just goes to show that employers will always have a hard time dealing with employee relations.
Although a persistent threat, Whites are for the most part irrelevant to the main conflict in this novel: a struggle between two otherworldly African entities. Akihu is an African demon. She may be forced to use Clay as Bacchanal’s acceptably white face, but she prefers to recruit from African-Americans and African cultures. Indeed, the main purpose of her carnival career (aside from supplying a perpetually renewed feast) is as cover for her search for the enemy she knows is coming for her. An enemy who, like Akihu, is tied to Africa.
Akihu’s quest (finding the unknown person with the potential to be her downfall before that person finds her ) provides a vivid backdrop to an engaging coming-of-age tale, as Eliza wrestles with the true nature of her gift and the significance of events she has heretofore misunderstood. It’s an impressive debut in novel length (Henry has previously published short stories). It’s clear that she can handle the longer form. I predict that readers will be eager for her next volume.
1: “And then what?” you may ask. It’s a question Akihu should have asked before deliberately orchestrating a chain of events that would lead to the one confrontation she had any chance of losing.