Ever since I first saw the cover for Veronica G. Henry‘s debut novel, Bacchanal, I’ve been eager to read it. With Spooky Season well underway, I thought now was the perfect time to dive into this magical story of evil and mystery set the American South in the 1930s.
Eliza Meeks was abandoned by her family, and she’s been working as a maid ever since. When a traveling carnival, the Bacchanal Carnival, arrives in Baton Rouge, she leaves her deadend job for a life on the road. Liza has a way with animals, and she must put together a show now that she’s part of Bacchanal. But Liza isn’t as good with animals as she claims, and her power of communicating with them often leaves the animals dead. Liza must learn to control her powers, and fast. As they travel from Louisiana through Texas and Oklahoma, Liza is also on the hunt for her younger sister, whom she misses dearly. She doesn’t realize the dangers lurking within the carnival, and with a cast of strange and magical characters, there’s no telling how the evil will be unleashed.
From the prologue, Bacchanal is a story of magic, horror, and the unknown. When we meet Liza Meeks, she’s a young woman who can communicate with animals by sending images to their minds… though sometimes those images kill the animals. If only her parents had taught her more about how to use her powers before they’d abandoned her. Sadly, she’s alone in the world, hoping to one day find her younger sister; she’s too angry at her parents to want to reconnect with them. One day, a carnival comes to Baton Rouge, giving Liza a possible way to find her sister. She leaves her thankless job as a maid and joins the Bacchanal carnival, where she will develop an animal show. She’ll need to master her animal communication powers, and quickly. Meanwhile, she’ll look through each town they stop in – from Louisiana to Texas to Oklahoma – in an effort to find her sister.
Liza isn’t the only one who’s looking for someone. The mysterious woman who actually runs the carnival – a woman none of the “carnies” know about – is an evil spirit on the hunt for the one who will be her downfall. This demon lady lurks in the background, hiding out in her own carriage while the carnival brings human souls to her.
Bacchanal is a novel, but multiple chapters go into the other carnival characters’ backstories, exploring what made them how they are, how they attained their powers, and what led them to join the Bacchanal carnival. These feel almost like short stories of their own, tangents that add to the overall atmosphere of the novel, even if they also somewhat slow down that pacing.
Indeed, the pacing is inconsistent. Some chapters are fast-paced and exciting, but elsewhere, perhaps too much time is spent on day-to-day activities and lukewarm relationships between characters. It isn’t so slow as to be boring, but it does take away from what could be a more thrilling horror/fantasy novel. Between the pacing issues and side characters’ backstories, overall Bacchanal is somewhat disjointed and confusing. Tightening up both elements could have made the novel much stronger.
Even with those issues, I did still enjoy Bacchanal. I love the carnival setting and the magic, some of which may draw from African mythology, if I’m not mistaken. Several characters (or their ancestors) are from countries like Nigeria, Senegal, and Zaire. Liza doesn’t know much of her own family history, but it seems she also has ancestors – and powers – originating in Africa. I did particularly like her own magic of talking with animals; I’ve always been an animal-lover, and having that ability would have been my dream superpower as a kid!
The magic and horror come to an exciting culmination, and I enjoyed how things played out. Bacchanal had sinister vibes throughout, and for me it worked as a late October read.
Robin Miles narrates the audiobook version of Bacchanal, and she does a wonderful job of bringing the whole story to life. She infuses the novel with energy and emotion, making for a captivating listen. It was maybe harder to follow the story – with the many tangents focused on side characters – and keeping the characters straight would have been easier reading in print, at least for me. Even so, I enjoyed listening to this story due to Robin Miles’s stellar performance.
Bacchanal is an atmospheric, magical novel with horror and mystery against a 1930s American South setting. It does have its minor issues, but is ultimately an enjoyable and enchanting novel. It’s only Veronica G. Henry’s first book, and I look forward to reading more from her. I already have The Quarter Storm, so stay tuned for that review.
Get the Book
You can buy Bacchanal here – it’s available as a hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook.
|Bacchanal by Veronica G. Henry|
|Audiobook Narrator||Robin Miles|
|Genre||Fantasy; Horror; Historical Fiction|
|Setting||Louisiana; Texas; Oklahoma|
|Book Length||12 hours|
|Format I Read||Audiobook|
|Original Publication Date||June 1, 2021|
Evil lives in a traveling carnival roaming the Depression-era South. But the carnival’s newest act, a peculiar young woman with latent magical powers, may hold the key to defeating it. Her time has come.
Abandoned by her family, alone on the wrong side of the color line with little to call her own, Eliza Meeks is coming to terms with what she does have. It’s a gift for communicating with animals. To some, she’s a magical tender. To others, a she-devil. To a talent prospector, she’s a crowd-drawing oddity. And the Bacchanal Carnival is Eliza’s ticket out of the swamp trap of Baton Rouge.
Among fortune-tellers, carnies, barkers, and folks even stranger than herself, Eliza finds a new home. But the Bacchanal is no ordinary carnival. An ancient demon has a home there too. She hides behind an iridescent disguise. She feeds on innocent souls. And she’s met her match in Eliza, who’s only beginning to understand the purpose of her own burgeoning powers.
Only then can Eliza save her friends, find her family, and fight the sway of a primordial demon preying upon the human world. Rolling across a consuming dust bowl landscape, Eliza may have found her destiny.
About the Author
Veronica Henry was born in Brooklyn, New York, and has been a bit of a rolling stone ever since. Her work has appeared in various online publications. She is a graduate of the Viable Paradise Workshop and a member of SFWA.
Veronica is proud to be of Sierra Leonean ancestry and counts her trip home as the most important of her life. She now writes from North Carolina, where she eschews rollerballs for fountain pens and fine paper. Other untreated addictions include chocolate and cupcakes.
Veronica’s debut novel, Bacchanal, is out now and available at bookstores and libraries everywhere.
Represented by Mary C. Moore of Kimberly Cameron & Associates.
Film inquires: Addison Duffy and Jasmine Lake at UTA