Fiction Reviews


(2022/2023) Stephanie Feldman, Verve Books, £9.99, pbk, 238pp, ISBN 978-0-857-30839-9


This was first published in the US in 2022 but only now, 2023, has its first British Isles outing. Saturnalia is structured like a dystopian heist story. Nina, a fraudulent fortune teller, using a stolen tarot pack (two cards of which were generously given away free with the book), lives in Philadelphia at a time when social order, the economy, and environment seem to be on the brink of an apocalyptic meltdown. Mosquitoes carry lethal diseases and all seems to be going to Hell in a hand-basket.

Despite the sense of living in the last days of civilisation as we know it, everyone is celebrating the Saturnalia, a night of excess, carnival, and wild bohemian parties. Aside from some flashback sequences that set essential back story all the events take place over the night of the Saturnalia itself.

Nina used to work at the Saturnalia, the most eponymous, famous and notorious club of all, the place to be, and be seen. It’s a mix of Great Gatsby party and Hellfire Club, When she quit, Nina stole the tarot deck she now uses, from the club.

The book’s club culture is its most fascinating aspect with secret societies within other cults and cabals, all trying to outdo one another. Much is left unexplained but that adds to the sense of mystery and promises there could be other tales to tell in this version of Philadelphia on the brink of anarchy, and global warming annihilation even before someone ends up unleashing the forces of the devil on the world.

Now Nina is recruited by a former friend to infiltrate the club and steal a mysterious box from the club in the middle of the party, the kind of event where entertainment includes throwing a live pig to its death from a great height.

Many guests at the bash are in carnival costumes and masks including a rather sinister demonic looking figure who seems to be stalking Nina during the theft and afterwards as she flees for her life, unsure who to trust.

And guess what? Despite orders, she opens the box…

There is a lot of great world-building, and an overwhelming sense of doom throughout but with the exception of Nina, characters are not really fleshed out. The item in the box and the figure in the mask are well presented and the final confrontation and threats for Nina to endure are tense but there is no real connection to characters who just do what they do because they can.

The pacing is fast, almost relentless, but buildings, clubs and the existential threat seem much more interesting than the dark forces the sceptical Nina finds becoming all too real.

Chapter headings are the names of some of Nina’s cards, and each section reads like an interpretation of the card (their images illustrate the opening of each portion of the narrative. The very brevity of the novel helps the sense of time running out and claustrophobic atmosphere of the World Nina finds herself inhabiting.

The thing in the box is in many ways a Hitchcockian McGuffin; a thing everyone wants even to the point of being prepared to kill and even invoke occult forces, to get their hands on.

The science fiction elements really give way to the central core of occultist-horror, with rich club owners trying to outdo each other in ritual and sacrifice, only for it to get very real when something seems to actually work and the dark forces are genuinely unleashed. I just wish the author had added more depth to the various protagonists Nina tangles with, but it is still a powerful read.

Arthur Chappell


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