Jaime Questell’s debut By a Charm and a Curse is a stunning imagining of life, love, and sacrifice wrapped in the spell-binding world of LeGrand’s Carnival Fantastic. Somewhere between Pinocchio, Snow White, The Night Circus, and A Court of Thorns and Roses, Questell’s novel exudes mystique and splendor, her writing sharp, gripping, and captivating.
Brimming with heart-stopping stunts, adrenaline-induced rides, and decadent costumes, the carnival epitomizes extravagance—and, for seventeen-year-old Emmaline King, escape. Having moved back to the monotonous town of Claremore, Oklahoma with her brothers and father while her mother pursues grant work in Guatemala, Emma seeks something more for herself. A spark in her otherwise dreary, undesirable day-to-day life. The carnival, she hopes, will serve as a temporary balm, a dazzling distraction to lose herself in with her friend, Jules. But the carnival is not as innocuous as it appears, and when Jules slips away with a group of classmates, Emma finds herself mesmerized by a strange, tantalizing boy whose chilling kiss upends not only her world but threatens her very life. In a single night, Emma loses everything she was and had as the carnival’s mysterious curse overtakes her, making her an intrinsic player in its complicated game.
Benjamin Singer wants nothing more than to escape LeGrand’s Carnival Fantastic. Apprentice to the carnival’s master carpenter—aka, his mother—Ben seeks reprieve from the demands of the carnival, from the predictable cocoon his life has become. The trouble is, his mother won’t allow him to leave, for the carnival is bound by a charm—a magical enchantment that prevents its people from illness, harm, or aging, and Audrey Singer seeks to protect her son from the abuses of the outside world. But for Ben, he’s willing to risk his life for freedom. Until he meets Emma.
Now keeper of the curse, Emma is little more than a walking, talking puppet, unfeeling as a corpse and just as cold. The curse has trapped her within the confines of the carnival, and since it serves as a counterpart to the charm, Emma cannot leave, unless she passes the curse onto another poor rube. Unless she robs someone else of his or her life. For as the novel’s title suggests, the carnival is bound by both a charm and a curse in equal measure, the symbiotic nature of each maintaining life and prosperity for its employees—at the expense and sacrifice of the curse’s bearer. The curse, horrendous as it appears, maintains balance, harmony. Safety. But when things begin to go awry—when lightbulbs burst, vehicles break down, and performers begin to suffer horrible injuries—Emma and Ben determine to seek a way to break the curse, whatever the cost.
And the cost, they discover, is higher than they could have imagined.
Told in alternating first-person perspectives, Questell’s contemporary fantasy is ripe with intrigue, humor, love, terror, and heartache. It’s full of enigmatic fortune tellers, brazen equestrian stunt-girls, and death-defying tumblers that will leave you with bated breath. But most of all, this novel explores humanity at its most vulnerable—and its most beautiful.