by Nick Wisseman
Witch in the White City transports us to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893. Neva Freeman is a dancer in the Algerian Theatre Exhibition, drawing crowds due to her amazing suppleness and agility. However, when oddly-marked biting insects begin to drop on her during the act and grisly murders are discovered, Neva befriends a group of Exposition workers who are also able to draw on extraordinary powers in an effort to defeat the evil lurking at the Fair and beyond.
Witch in the White City is a fast-paced historical fantasy action horror thriller that does not disappoint and ably straddles the several aforementioned genres. The beginning is considered, intriguing and intelligently written. The reader is straight into the action as the bugs fall on Neva. Throughout the novel, the insects are unpleasantly well-realised and serve as a really creepy, unnerving addition. Neva is a capable main character; outwardly strong but with a hint of vulnerability. As the book progresses, her portrayal evolves so that by the time we are nearing the end, she assumes the mantle of a science-fiction superhero. It works despite moving quite a way from where we begin with her; nonetheless, I would have liked her abilities to have been more obvious from the start. However, the overwhelming main character is the Exposition itself. Within a few chapters, you feel utterly immersed; the research is meticulous and the attention to detail is scrupulous; it’s quite thought-provoking. Further food for thought is the fact that Mr Wisseman has not sugar-coated the issues that existed at, and surrounded the World’s Fair. The constant, overt racism that Neva is subjected to, is a thread that runs through the narrative as are the conditions the workers are exposed to, echoing the brutal societal dichotomy of the time. Part II was eerily poignant in this respect with the homeless existing among the dereliction of the now defunct but once costly exhibitions.
The plot is well-constructed although does become a touch convoluted, especially towards the end. There were some good twists but a few turns that occasionally stretched credibility despite the fantasy framework of the novel. I loved the interweaving of fact and fiction; it can be a difficult technique to blend realism and fiction successfully and Mr Wisseman is very adept at integrating the narratives together. It’s convincing and the non-fictional environment and events help to ground and add authenticity to the more fantastical, fictional elements of the story. It is a very pacey novel and a slightly slower tempo would have been welcome at times, especially with Neva but it’s testament to Mr Wisseman’s writing that the blistering rhythm never falters.
Overall, I found Witch in the White City to be an entertaining, imaginative and exciting read which has been faultlessly researched and edited. Highly recommended.