Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
OK, I tried to write this review without spoilers, but I can’t. I have to talk about the fates of certain characters, because the more I think about it the angrier I get. Trigger warning for violence against women used as a plot device. Buckle up.
Do you want to live forever? I’m not talking to you, Starship Trooper. I’m talking to you, disposable poor person from 1878. Would you like to be a test subject?
Eric Scott Fishl combines the moral and philosophical quandaries of alchemy’s quest for immortality with the setting of the post–Civil War era Old West United States. It’s a cool idea, and I suspect there is a lot in here for some readers. I don’t, as a general rule, read westerns. Their setting tends not to click with me. There are some exceptions—The Dead of Winter, another Angry Robot book, is one. Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show comes close to being another; ultimately, in this case, it isn’t the setting so much as the characters and the writing that leave me unsatisfied.
The eponymous Dr. Potter is a sham. He’s a snake-oil salesman in a frankly underwhelming travelling circus/freak-show; and he isn’t even in charge. He’s the face of the show, but sinister ringmaster Lyman Rhoades is pulling the strings—and he’s just a minion for the big man back home, the brains of the operation. Dr. Potter is beholden to this benefactor, reliant upon him for the drug that will keep him alive. And so he plays a dark and dirty role in a Faustian bargain, even as Rhoades exercises his power over the people of the show with brutal and violent intensity.
I like a lot of the ideas that Fischl throws into this book. However, the end product doesn’t feel as smooth as it could be. There is a lot of telling rather than showing here. The first few chapters introduce the various groups of characters who will matter in the story, and the narrator spends most of their time describing these characters’ pasts and their current feelings to us. I much prefer it when authors let us piece these things together, let it come out through dialogue and the occasional tidbits of exposition. Big paragraphs might be satisfying to write, but they tank the pace of the story. And while this is a stylistic quibble at its heart, it’s one that stays with me throughout the whole book. Fischl never settles for a one-liner or an implication when a carefully-constructed paragraph, or even page, is possible. As a result, we get a lovely and holistic view of the world of Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show—but for me, this starts to eclipse the action and the actual characters behind these ideas.
And then we get into the problematic bits.
This book has a serious lack of women with agency. It irked me for the first part of the book, with the introduction of Mercy (heavy-handed symbolic name anyone?) as Rhoades’ wife and chew-toy. Literally her only purpose in this plot is to suffer and cry and be a symbol for the men to pity while they hand-wring over how weak they are for not taking Rhoades on. There is a particularly unsettling scene (middle of chapter 4, not going to quote from it here because it’s super disturbing) where Rhoades sexually assaults Mercy. Fischl describes Rhoades’ actions in grotesque detail. I can’t imagine how someone who might be triggered by these depictions would react to reading it; I have no such triggers and I felt viscerally disturbed by what happened. But it’s not even the level of detail—I get that the scene is meant to be unsettling in a book that is meant to disturb. It’s not the way the scene was written so much as its purpose for the plot. It’s the fact that the scene is entirely a gratuitous way of using violence against women to demonstrate that Rhoades is a Very Bad Guy, as if we hadn’t already had that confirmed in half a dozen other ways.
I soldiered on, hoping that Fischl would give us a more positive depiction of women, or maybe even give Mercy an arc that could redeem her beginning. Elizabeth McDaniel looked, briefly, like she might be that character—but nope! Both Mercy and Elizabeth are fridged (TVTropes), again, purely it seems for the effect this has on the audience and to demonstrate just how bad Rhoades is.
Look, I know that violence against women has a tried and true history in horror stories. That doesn’t make it right, or good, or acceptable. And it is possible for women to meet grisly ends in manners that are not sexualized. Finally, there are basically four named women in this book (the third is Annabelle, Dr. Hedwith’s wife, who thankfully is not raped or killed as far as I know—she just kind of disappears halfway through the book; the fourth, Mary McDaniel, is fridged and used as the motivation for a short-lived revenge plot before the the book even starts). None of them have any kind of existence, arc, or purpose independent of the male characters; this is fantastically sucky. I am not opposed to bad things happening to characters, of any gender, for the purposes of horrifying the audience (though, to be honest, it isn’t really my bag). But this is not the way to do it at all. So I’m calling it out, and you can like Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show but you also better be ready to acknowledge how problematic this representation of women is.
I also have some reservations about Oliver as a depiction of a Black man in post–Civil War America. Fischl makes some choices of diction, description, and behaviour and then lampshades them with explanations that feel faintly stereotypical to me. Moreover, while Oliver has a more active role in the plot, owing to his gender, it’s a role largely subservient to or in support of white men. This is an area I’m not as well-versed in, though, so I’ll leave my critiques there, and hopefully other (preferably Black) readers could weigh in either way.
It’s a shame, because the ending of this book is very exciting. I like it when good plans go to tatters and we end up in a Battlestar Galactica finale, everything-is-going-to-shit situation. For all my complaints about exposition and pacing earlier in the book, I really like the pacing and intensity of the ending. I just wish I didn’t have to wade through such poor representation to get there.
Honestly cannot recommend this book.