Nathalie Baudin writes the morgue column for Le Petit Journal, which is all the more impressive considering she’s a sixteen-year-old in 1887. Though she longs for a more challenging journalist position, she dutifully attends morgue viewings each day without incident. That is, until the body of a murder victim is displayed, and Nathalie has a vision of the killing in brutal detail. Soon, Paris is in a panic as more bodies are discovered and someone begins taking gleeful credit for their demise— the Dark Artist. Nathalie realizes, with the aid of her newfound visions, she might might be the only one able to find the killer’s identity and bring peace to city, even if she risks becoming a victim herself.
Great books, in their opening pages, totally transport readers to a different time and place. Here, readers are plopped into a stunning portrayal of 1880s Paris, and it’s due to the careful direction of author Jodie Lynn Zdrok. She opens with a bang, expertly twisting the start around Nathalie attending a crowded corpse viewing at La Morgue and then suffering a psychic vision. It’s doubly unexpected, but sets the tone perfectly— here’s a society obsessed with death, and it’s about to get even more macabre.
But then Zdrok pulls back, letting some slack in the pacing. She takes her time building the mystery, building the characters, and, ultimately, crafting an engrossing world. The payoff is immense. This glimpse into Paris feels real, and there’s an ever-present danger— after all, there’s a killer on the loose. But it’s not immediately evident how this directly affects Nathalie. Zdrok dangles each reveal carefully, dropping new twists that draw Nathalie in and propel the action forward at the most delicious times.
Really, there’s perhaps no better character to follow around 1880s Paris as she stalks a murderer than Nathalie. She’s cool, determined, and complicated— everything a main character should be, and more. She’s helped along by a brilliant cast of friends and family. Scenes with her mother are highlights, and Zdrok, with finesse, navigates the complications of a mother-daughter relationship as Nathalie moves to the cusp of adulthood.
At its core, this book is a mystery, but it certainly isn’t a standard one. In fact, it tosses out the formula entirely. There’s more introspection, with Nathalie constantly questioning her role in the sleuthing process. Her detective work is just as much about her journey as it is about the case, which clicks. It’s a character-driven process, with clues and red herrings taking a backseat at times, but Zdork merges these two narratives in such a satisfying way.
All of this is not to suggest there isn’t a bit of fun to be had. Nathalie’s best friend, Simone, works in a club and adheres to some mysticism, providing both fun and tricky subplots. And there’s some mild flirting with Christophe, an inspector. Refreshingly, romance is not a major element of the book, and their interactions feel sweet and perfectly natural.
That’s the beauty of Spectacle. Sure, there’s a serial killer on the loose and some paranormal aspects that are being kept hush-hush, but everything feels natural. That’s an amazing feat on Zdrok’s part, and it’s resulted in a brilliant debut.
Author: Jodie Lynn Zdrok
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication Date: February 12, 2019
Classification: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Young Adult
Note: I received a free ARC of this book through NetGalley.