The Darker Carnival (The Markhat Files) - Frank Tuttle

Markhat has certainly changed since I last encountered him as a hard-luck Finder in The Mister Trophy. In The Darker Carnival, the ninth in the series, Markhat is married, secretary’d, and given that he has a childlike banshee under his roof, rather harried. He’s so thoroughly powered up that when the parents of a missing girl ask Markhat to rescue their undead daughter from the Dark Carnival, he’s up to the task.

 

I remember The Mister Trophy as a light, fluffy, and thoroughly enjoyable hardboiled detective parody, so I was impressed to see how much the series had changed in the intervening books. Markhat has assembled a gang of powerful allies, a banshee named Buttercup, a vampire named (I kid you not) Evis Prestley, and even a guardsman who hardly ever throws Markhat in prison any more. Markhat’s new sorcerous skills lend a more serious tone to the book, as Markhat begins to question where his growing powers will lead him. At the same time, the book provides plenty of opportunities for a chuckle or two. There’s Markhat’s inner commentary:

"The Church tried and failed to outlaw lighting rods inside Rannit a few weeks ago, apparently on the basis that the long steel sticks committed the cardinal sin of actually preventing lightning strikes.

“Thwarting the will of the Heavens,” cried the priests.

“I’ll take two,” cried the homeowners.

The marital banter between Markhat and his wife:

“You’re just making things up, aren’t you? We’re lost. Lost in a forest filled with monsters.”

“I’m a seasoned military man,” I said. “My woodcraft is second to none. If I say that way is west, there’s a one in four chance I’m correct.”

And there’s always Mama Hog:

“I reckon,” she said, “we’ll have to go about things like they done in olden days.”

“Which was?’

“Cut throats till ye run out of necks.”

Plus the inspiring pre-battle speeches:

“They have mastodons and necromancers,” I said. “What do we have?”

“Pluck. Resolve. Assorted serious injuries,” said Evis.

The one unfortunate aspect of leveling up is that unless the antagonists grow in power to match the protagonist, it’s hard to maintain the suspense, especially if there's a Sorting Algorithm of Evil Fail. Markhat the dream-walking sorcerer's allies include a banshee, a troll, a sharpshooter, a sorceress, a band of powerful halfdead with hightech weapons, the entire city guard, and of course Mama Hog. They are facing... a carnival. Somehow it’s a bit hard to be anxious about the outcome.

 

For me, the majority of the suspense came from wondering about what actually powered the Darker Carnival. What could transform a pitiful bunch of drunken carnies into a sinister house of death and destruction? Unfortunately, the solution was a letdown: not only did the source of the power seem a bit off; the nature of the carnival wasn’t really explained by the solution.

 

Given that the cause of all of this is a pitiful and petulant child, where do all the monsters and malice come from? What about the child’s antics with the toys leads to the Darker Carnival? If the carnies are just magical windups, how can they react and scheme and behave so autonomously? Why does it become superpowered and sinister only at night? Why attract a bunch of men, apparently only to kill them? Why trap creatures into mirrors? It’s pretty clearly intimated that the daughter was captured, made undead, and raped; how did the child come up with that notion, let alone grant his ringmaster the power for that? Nothing in a kid playing with toys explains anything about the Darker Carnival. Come to think of it, where did all of the power for the Dark Carnival and the Darker Carnival come from in the first place?

 

There were many other plotholes and inconsistencies; for example, considering Markhat claims to be skint and his house just burned down, how does he pay for the newspaper part of the plan? I was also rather disgruntled by the “mysterious prophecy” bit. A dude in a dream saying “What you need is what you lost” should be a reference to an intangible possession; loyalty, innocence, whatever. I was totally thrown to discover that the meaning of the mysterious portent was actually totally mundane and completely literal: his lost sword. Really? If it’s that straightforward, why not say so?

(show spoiler)

 

Overall, it was interesting to see how Markhat has grown and changed as the series has progressed. The books are no longer silly, creative parodies; instead Tuttle has fleshed out both his magical world and a wide cast of supporting characters. Markhat, too, has been changed by his experiences in the series; no longer a simple Finder, he’s struggling to come to terms with his own growing powers. While the story’s denouement didn’t really do it for me, the book definitely reignited my interest in the Markhat series. Count me in for his next adventure.

 

**Note: this review is of an uncorrected advanced reader copy. While the included quotes may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the nature of the novel as a whole.**

 

I received this advanced reader copy through Netgalley from the publisher, Samhain Publishing, in exchange for my honest review.