In 1890s America, a father-daughter mind-reading act who used their illusionism and acuity to solve crimes committed during Vaudeville tours face a deadly conspiracy in lawless San Francisco.
Imagine a magic show whose first act is charming legerdemain—and whose second act is ghastly mutilation and death. In this wildly uneven YA novel, Wiley, a stage-magic buff and historian, combines elements of real-life illusionists and Harry Houdini contemporaries into a fetching heroine. Adolescent Kyame Piddington and her widowed dad, John, cross an occasionally lawless Victorian-era America as the Impossible Piddingtons, a mind-reading act. They wow crowds with seemingly supernatural feats—actually products of Kyame’s photographic memory (inherited from her tuberculosis-victim mother), Sherlock-Holmesian logical deduction, acute peripheral vision that sees around blindfolds and a secret language of nonverbal cues worked out on the sly with her adoring father. Consequently the Piddingtons not only appear psychic but also sniff out deceit and mischief by bandits, gamblers, second-storey men, bankers and unscrupulous showbiz rivals, not to mention helping police solve crimes as a publicity sidelight to hype the act. After a captivating first half, Wiley has a 2-year narrative “intermission” (taking the opportunity to explain magic trade-secrets in a nonfiction sidebar), then returns in a darker mode. Kyame is now a young woman, still honing her mesmerism and shooting chops while attending art school. John Piddington, retired from touring, works in a Sacramento bank and uncovers a crooked financing/white-slavery/opium dealing scheme that results in a San Francisco tong war and gruesome torture-murder. By the bloody conclusion, Kyame is a girl who seems ready for her dragon tattoo—and two more installments are promised in a proposed Piddingtons trilogy. Wiley deftly renders the period atmosphere, attitudes, action and dialogue, and Kyame could develop a loyal following of readers of all ages and sexes—if only the material’s shifts in tone from PG to R were less schizoid. Still, one looks forward, admittedly with a little trepidation, to whatever Wiley plans to do with the heroine next.
A magical concept and a miraculous heroine keep the pages turning in a YA adventure-fiction that feels like two different books fused together at mid-point—the second half far more violent and grim than the first.