In Questell’s debut YA novel, a teenage girl has her first kiss and becomes trapped by a traveling carnival’s magical spell.
While her mother is conducting research in Guatemala, young Emma has been sent to Claremore, Oklahoma, to live with her father. She’s lost and lonely, and during a night out at Le Grand’s Carnival Fantastic, she kisses a boy for the first time. But as soon as their lips touch, she knows that she’s made a mistake—not least of all because the boy then pushes her from the top of a Ferris wheel. As a result, Emma takes on his curse, becoming a sort of marionette—alive but without a heartbeat. Now she must travel with the carnival until she can lure someone into taking her place, as the boy did. Emma’s only solace is the apprentice carpenter, Benjamin, who, in his own way, is also a prisoner to the carnival. It soon becomes apparent that the carnival carries a charm as well as a curse—specifically, no one can die within the carnival grounds. Ben’s mother, it turns out, brought him there to be safe. But although he loves his mom and his circus family, he also longs to live his own life, and so he’s saving up money to run away. In just a few weeks, he’ll be free—but after he meets Emma, romance blossoms. As Questell tells her story of Emma’s incarceration in Le Grand’s Carnival Fantastic, she captures much of the numb wonder and tumbling uncertainty of teenage existence. As a metaphor for first love, the carnival serves quite brilliantly, and the scenario will resonate with YA and new-adult readers. The switching between Emma’s and Ben’s increasingly interwoven stories also ensures that neither the young woman’s nor the young man’s point of view is especially favored. Overall, the author has crafted a compelling book with clear prose and depth of characterization. The carnival is a living, breathing conglomerate of real people with evolving stories that belie clichéd notions of good and bad. As Emma and Ben draw closer together, momentum builds and the pages fly by.
A dark idea for a YA story, executed deftly and with feeling.