In which I try and fail to continue riding The Night Circus high
Title: Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician
Author: Daniel Wallace
What’s it about: Fresh off the excitement of The Night Circus, which I just couldn’t get out of my mind, I decided to embark on another circus-themed book and was directed to Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician, written by Daniel Wallace, most known to me as the author of the wildly imaginative tall tale, Big Fish. Henry Wallace uses his novelty as a black magician to find a job with Jeremiah Musgrove’s Chinese Circus. His race is his greatest selling point in the 1950s rural South. His act…is a disaster.
To hear Henry tell it, he was once an outstanding magician, a man who could make anything happen just by thinking it. But his power and his fortune have declined as he’s travelled the world with a singular purpose: to find Mr. Sebastian aka the devil, the man who taught him to make things disappear and then disappeared with the thing that was most precious to Henry. One night in Alabama, Henry finds himself bound and gagged in the backseat of a pick-up with three white boys with a dangerous agenda. The boys are about to discover something astonishing about Henry, which catapults the reader into a history of Henry’s life, told through the voices of his friends in the circus and finally, though Henry’s own green eyes.
Henry’s story is compelling, but it’s not what you expect. Early in the novel you learn something that changes the entire framework of the novel. I actually saw it coming a bit, and Wallace gets it out in the open fairly early so you won’t build up too many pretenses about what you’re reading, but I still felt a little let down, like I’d signed up to read one story and built expectations around that, only to be told a significantly less original story. In defense of the book, I will say that it had a difficult act to follow in The Night Circus. And though I enjoyed the overall feeling of this book, I never really became fully immersed in another world or drawn in by the voices of the circus freak narrators.
Wallace’s story is a slow build, dipping us in and out of Henry’s life—his relationship with his impoverished father, his development as a magician, his love for an ethereal girl halfway between life and death, and always his quest to confront and destroy the devil. My favorite portion of the story came early on as we witness Henry’s childhood and close relationship with his younger sister. But to me, Mr. Sebastian was one of those in-between books, something I didn’t mind reading but probably wouldn’t pick up again.
Would I recommend? Maybe. I think the book just wasn’t what I wanted it to be, but it could be just the thing for someone with a different set of expectations. Don’t expect any sort of deep commentary on race, because you’ll be let down. But if you’re just looking for a good story, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start.