I received a digital advance reader’s copy (ARC) of Before We Disappear by Shaun David Hutchinson. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
In Before We Disappear, Jack is a street thief-turned magician’s assistant. He spends his days picking pockets, and his nights helping his guardian, The Enchantress, weave awe-inspiring spells. When the Enchantress decides to move their act to America for the 1909 World’s Fair in Seattle, Jack thinks this will be the greatest adventure yet. Once there, though, Jack discovers that another magician, one named Laszlo, is vying for the top spot at the fair. But what’s remarkable is that Laszlo’s tricks seem impossible—but surely they can’t be real magic. Jack takes it upon himself to investigate, which is when he meets Wilhelm, Laszlo’s young assistant, who has a dark past and a dangerous secret. As the two boys grow closer, their feelings for one another growing stronger, they have to choose between their old lives and the one they might create together.
This is a cool historical fantasy! I liked the characters, especially the side characters like Ruth and Jessamy. They have a fantastic bond with Jack and Wilhelm, who in turn have good chemistry with each other. Other characters, like Teddy and Evangeline, are less likeable, if not outright horrendous, but they make for a great cast.
One quibble I had with Jack and Wilhelm though (other than the rapid pace of their romance, which apparently is my usual reaction in stories that center romance), is that their points of view, for me, weren’t distinct enough. The story alternates between each of their perspectives, but the narration sounds way too similar. Especially considering how different their attitudes and backgrounds are, it didn’t make sense to me that they would sound the same.
That said, I think the portrayal of guardian-child relationships in this book was interesting. The bonds Jack and Wil have with Evangeline and Teddy are troubling and unhealthy in their best moments, and toxic and abusive in their worst. It’s a dark subplot, for sure, especially as both boys cannot always see the problems they’re facing. If you are strongly affected by reading about emotional and physical abuse, this might not be the book for you.
However, moving to lighter subjects, the magic in this book is really fun. We get a nice dose of street magic/sleight-of-hand drama, plus actual fantasy magic. The blend is excellent, and I really enjoyed reading about the tricks the Enchantress and Laszlo perform. In addition, the wild setting of the World’s Fair makes the atmosphere of this book vivid and wonderful. When the magic shows evolved from mere spectacle to basically ostentatious heist plots with high stakes, I loved it. I’m a sucker for magic, what can I say?
In the end, Before We Disappear is a magical romp through early twentieth-century Seattle. The setting is amazing, the magic intriguing, and the plot sometimes dark and mysterious but also sometimes romantic. The love story is sweet, and the characters are decent. I didn’t find that the writing, particularly the narration, worked for me, but overall I had a good time with this novel.
Overall rating: 8.3/10
Before We Disappear will be published on September 28th, 2021!