Fans of the Deadlands tabletop RPG series will be happy to know that Boneyard (2017), Seanan McGuire’s addition to the two previously published tie-in novels Ghostwalkers (2015) and Thunder Moon Rising (2016), is chock-full of Weird West goodness, steampunk-style mechanical creations, and mighty strange bumps in the night. Fans of McGuire’s fiction will be happy to know that Boneyard’s weirdness is matched by a strong and complicated main character, more fantastical creatures than you can shake a stick at, and blurred lines between monster and man. And if you’re a fan of both, then you’ve come to the right place.
Annie Pearl and her seven-year-old daughter Adeline have traveled with the Blackstone Family Circus for most of Adeline’s life. Annie’s job is tending to the circus’ collection of so-called human freaks (who are generally just sweet, regular people with a bit more hair than normal) and its much larger collection of terrifying creatures like skull-patterned terrantulas, a pumpkin-headed creature with glowing orange eyes, wasps as big as a man’s forearm, and much worse. Annie has healthy measures of fear and respect for these creatures and takes her duties very seriously, having escaped a past which terrified her more than they ever could. It’s a good living, all things considered, though Adeline is mute and her good health depends on nightly doses of a foul concoction; the people of the circus accept them as family, Mr. Blackstone is respectful and kind, and no one asks who Annie used to be before she found them.
Unfortunately, autumn brings its own challenges for traveling circus folk: the weather makes travel difficult, especially among the Rocky Mountain passes between Idaho and Oregon. The best answer is to find a town or city that will give them enough money for a week of entertainment to pay for winter lodgings elsewhere, and rumors of a welcoming (and wealthy) town have reached Mr. Blackstone. But any deal that sounds too good to be true usually is, and The Clearing — aptly named for the dense masses of trees which ring the small community — occasionally asks a very high price for its entertainment.
When things go spectacularly wrong over the course of a single night, with plenty of blood and fire and screaming, it’s Annie’s strength of will and refusal to give up that propel Boneyard along. McGuire’s descriptions of the nighttime woods around The Clearing and its various inhabitants sent a few chills up my spine, especially as more and more secrets were laid bare. There are multiple villains of varying sorts, some of whom are behind the events at The Clearing, some of whom have decided that Annie’s past needs to be reckoned with. The characters from her past are where the strongest Deadlands influence could be seen, with frequent mentions of a Dr. Hellstromme, the mysterious substance known as “ghost rock,” and scientific experimentation. The core story itself and its trappings were compelling enough on their own that the few nods to elements of Deadlands seemed almost superfluous. I’m not familiar with Deadlands, so I couldn’t tell you whether McGuire’s depictions of the territory of Deseret and its capitol city, Salt Lake City, were accurate to the game’s version of those locations and their inhabitants, but they figure only briefly in the greater scheme of things.
Boneyard is a bit too long for a campfire tale, but it’s a fun late-night read, especially if you enjoy traveling circuses as much as McGuire clearly does. You’ll never look at a traveling show the same way again, especially if they have any sort of “oddities” display. Just make sure to keep your hands to yourself, and well away from anything sharp or hungry.