Trigger warning for rape.
It’s the end of the world for most people in Stephanie Feldman’s chilling Saturnalia. Climate change has made large parts of the United States uninhabitable, or nearly so. Jobs are hard to come by and the Haves are doing much better than the Have Nots, thanks to generational wealth and advantageous connections. For people like protagonist Nina, the only way to secure a decent living is to pledge oneself to a club like the Saturn Club. Service now in exchange for big favors looks like a good deal, until one looks more closely at the real price of privilege. And, just to make this novel that much more interesting, we get to examine privilege and permission and power with a hefty dose of medieval alchemy.
Nina has been out of the Saturn Club for three years and things are not going all that well. Without the Club helping her with employment, Nina makes do with odd freelance editing jobs and telling fortunes with her old Saturn Club Tarot desk. She doesn’t make much, just enough to keep a roof over her head and food (sometimes) on her table. When an old friend from the Saturn Club reaches out with the offer of pots of money, Nina can hardly turn them down, even if she has to go back to the place she swore never to return to. She comforts herself with the thought that the wild Saturnalia parties across the city will provide cover for her. With everyone engaging in epic levels of Baccanalian carousing, who’s going to notice one young woman in a mask and black dress?
And that’s when things get really weird. Saturnalia unspools over one very hectic, very frightening, very enlightening longest night of the year. There are lots of drunk people, of course, and some truly strange costumes. Then there are the betrayals and double-crosses and even more secret societies. But who would expect a recreation of the Chemical Wedding? Or an impossible, implacable stalker straight from the pages of an alchemical text or grimoire? Or something so magical that it might be able to avert humanity’s long slide into ruin and extinction? Part of the pleasure of reading Saturnalia is figuring out what the hell is going along while following Nina back and forth across the partying city, so I don’t want to say too much more other than that all the strangeness builds into a deeply satisfying ending. Fans of the bizarre will like this one, without being so illogical or outré that it will lose readers who are new to weird stories.