This debut historical fantasy chronicles the life and times of a famous psychic medium during the late Victorian era.
It’s 1918 in Italy, and the incomparable psychic Alessandra Poverelli has died. Tomaso Labella, editor of the newspaper Messaggero, is one of the people who knew her best. He fondly remembers meeting her in 1899, when he was a young photographer and she was an up-and-coming medium. She did more than talk to the dead, however—she could also levitate tables (with a poorly understood telekinesis), which brought her attention from scientific circles. She and Tomaso eventually toured Europe alongside the evolutionist and spiritualism skeptic Camillo Lombardi. This helped Alessandra escape her abusive husband, Pigotti, to whom she never planned to return. Yet, as her reputation soared, she became the target of those who aggressively tried to discredit her. Soon, the pace of touring and nightly séances started to ruin Alessandra’s health—and she could only perform when in high spirits, surrounded by positive onlookers. When the church learned of her abilities, they endeavored to expose a tragic secret from her past. Little did her enemies know that the psychic could also channel a demonic presence that didn’t suffer fools lightly. Author Schmicker (The Listener, 2010) delivers an enchanting, graceful narrative that will absorb readers from the first page. Historical elements help ground the story and highlight psychic events when they do happen; we learn, for example, that there “were a lot of dead for [Alessandra] to talk to. Cholera swept through Naples all the time, and every family had lost a child...and hoped to make contact one last time.” The novel is bittersweet as the teen Tomaso pines for a love twice his age. He tells us she “was the first woman in my life.” Also impressive is how Schmicker captures the tone of the era: “The English rarely bother to learn any other language...why should they, they run the world.” In a tale this robust, readers shouldn’t take offense at the few slurs used in context.
A fully transporting debut that should whet appetites for a follow-up.