3 February 2017

Review: Dr Potter's Medicine Show

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Dr Potter's Medicine Show
Eric Scott Fischl
Angry Robot, 2 February 2017
PB, 416 pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book via NetGalley.

How to describe the book? It's almost as if Mary Shelley had set Frankenstein, or Robert Louis Stephenson Doctor Jekyll, in the Old West.

But weirder than that, and funnier too.

The eponymous Doctor Alexander Potter sells patent medicine - "the Chock-a-Saw Sagwa tonic" - from the back of a wagon in 1870s Oregon as part of a travelling show featuring, among other attractions, a Chinese fortune teller, a black Hercules (complete with lionskin), a freak show and a French singer, Mercy (who's forced by her husband Lyman Rhoades to provide other services to the customers after the show). Lyman is the presiding (evil) genius of the show, with Potter only a catspaw: in turn Lyman is ruled by the mysterious Morrison Hedwith, who produces the Tonic - and who's into some really strange stuff beyond that.

In short, Hedwith is an alchemist, almost the last of the alchemists, committed to the Great Work - the creation of the Stone which can give immortality (and transmute lead to gold). The show is part of his plan: as if it's not already evil and twisted enough (and with Lyman in charge, believe me, it is) the show is a vehicle for this singularly evil and twisted man.

Which is where Frankenstein and potentially Jekyll come in as this is - among other things - a story that explores both the dark side of knowledge and the pre-modern science that Shelley invoked in her novel. It's full of desperate men, seeking immortality or at least, seeking to stave off death, who regard everyone else at best as tools or objects, at worst as playthings. Some of these men are purposefully cruel (Lyman, whose treatment of his wife is as spine chilling and loathsome as anything I've read in fiction - be aware that this makes for difficult reading in places) while others simply don't care what damage they cause.

The suffering is redeemed, to a degree, by the presence of a trio who start out almost as a comic subplot - a couple of would be outlaws, D Solomon Parker and his brother Agamemnon Rideout and and the respectable dentist Josiah McDaniel who hires them for revenge. Perpetually whisky sodden and inept, they, with Josiah's sister Elizabeth, are the closest thing this book has to heroes as they track the Show for revenge. Elizabeth, especially, who's trying to save Josiah's comes across as more determined, level headed and brave than anyone else here. She's undoubtedly the true hero of this entertaining if at times dark story, setting out into the wilderness to save her brother even though she barely knows how to saddle her horse.

The determination of the quartet, who squabble and drink their way through the wilderness, lightens the book and recalls those classic Westerns where an ill assorted and distrustful bunch must work together to survive. Pitting them against the malign Rhoades makes for a tense if at times blood soaked plot and a vert entertaining read.

One aspect though, detracted from the story for me - the extent to which its women end up in jeopardy and as motivation for rescue. I don't want to overdo that: after all, Elizabeth sets out to save her brother, but he is in turn on a mission of revenge for what happened to his wife Mary, and there are others as well who end up suffering an unpleasant fates and/ or providing motivation to the men That seems unnecessary, because there's plenty here to motivate and involve the reader and the characters.

Overall though, this is a different and truly weird tale, which maintains tension to the end and features some great personalities, a well realised and unusual setting and an inventive plot.

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