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Review: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler promises dark family secrets, magic, and a mysterious book. Also, the main character is a librarian! For most any book lover, this book seems destined to be as captivating as the back cover touts.

The Book of Speculation has two narrative viewpoints, based in two different time periods.

Simon is a young librarian who lost his mother as a young child to drowning, his father to death from grief, and his little sister, though still living, to her carnival act as a tarot card reader. He lives alone in a house perched on a crumbling cliff that overlooks the very bay where his mother drowned. One day, he receives an old, crumbling book, inscribed with his grandmother’s name, from an antiquarian bookseller with a cryptic message that the contents of the book may be of some interest. After some initial skepticism, and upon further examination, Simon discovers that the water-logged book contains his family history, which accounts the details of a sinister family curse that effects the females of his clan; a curse that could claim the life of his sister unless it is broken.

Then there is Amos, a mute boy who is abandoned in the woods to fend for himself, and is taken in by a traveling circus to be their “wild boy” act. The ringleader develops a fondness for Amos and takes care of him as if he were his own son. The other circus performers gradually draw Amos in their dysfunctional family fold, and he is promoted to reading tarot cards with a Russian Madam. Eventually, the circus stumbles upon another young lost soul, who has a talent for holding her breath beyond normal lung capacity, and she is dubbed their “mermaid” act. Amos is taken in by her beauty and grief, and the two begin a love affair that strikes terror in the heart of his Madam, who recognizes what the girl really is. However, if Amos refuses to hear the truth, his torrid relationship could set in a motion a curse that will affect his future generations – forever.

It sounds like a great story, right? It’s certainly a good story. Overall, during my reading, I found the book to be interesting, but it did hold some disappointments for me, namely in character development. Since many people on the GoodReads review site have rated this book higher than I have, I’ll do my best to explain my divergence from the fold.

There are many characters to keep track of throughout the story, aside from Simon and Amos. There’s Simon’s sister and her tattooed boyfriend, the family across the street and their daughter, with whom Amos has an awkward relationship, as well as Churchwarry, the antiquarian who sent Simon the book. Then, there’s all of the people in Amos’ circus family, as well as his lover. For a skilled writer and/or savvy reader, multiple characters should not be an issue, but only if each character is distinct with personality. Unfortunately, Simon himself was whiny and unlikeable, and many of the characters fell short of their potential. In fact, some of the more likeable characters were the secondary characters, such as Simon’s sister’s boyfriend. He is covered in tattoos of tentacles and has a weirdly special talent with electricity. Now, his story, I’d love to hear!

Amos' narrative was intriguing and mysterious, while Simon's narrative came off as slow-paced, dull, and, at times, whiny. Neither story ever quite succeeded at pulling me in, though I was interested in finding out what ultimately happened with Amos and his "mermaid" lover, as well as the cast and crew of the traveling circus.

The mood and tone of the overall story is rather melancholy and depressing, and if you're a wildly imaginative reader, you may be horrified by the descriptions of horseshoe crabs crawling over everything and everyone. That's right - horseshoe crabs! The descrption of these ancient, alien creatures surely lends a creepy vibe to the story. While I clearly enjoyed some parts of the story more than others, the conclusion was well-done, and I could appreciate why so many other readers enjoyed the intertwined stories of Simon and Amos.

The Book of Speculation fell short of my expectations, however, those who have a love affair with the weird and fantastical, as well as for mysteries, may find that this story is right up their alley.

Disclaimer: I received an e-Arc of this publication from St. Martin's Press in return for an honest review.

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