SATURNALIA by Stephanie Feldman (BOOK REVIEW)
“That’s the point of Saturnalia, of all carnivals: to break the rules, to upend society, to make a no one king for the night. But it’s all a game … We all know what’s to come: the children will eat ice cream today and the adults will drink themselves blind tonight, and tomorrow, all week long. Then back to the normal routine in January, chicory instead of wine, salad instead of meat, the strangers we work with instead of the family breathing down our necks. Too tired to worry about South Philly dissolving into marshland and the leaking migrant camps.”
Stephanie Feldman’s Saturnalia (2022) is a compelling mixture of near future climate change fiction and fantasy drawing from paganism and the tarot. The novel weaves these two modes together expertly, producing a dark and sensual mythic novel that explicitly engages with current environmental and social anxieties. Set in a climate change-ravaged near future Philadelphia transfigured by a decadent pagan carnival, Feldman creates a sumptuous narrative of alchemy, secret societies, monsters and betrayal that delivers incisive critique of our foolhardy destruction of the planet and the increasing disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Saturnalia is as sinister and beguiling as its beautiful cover art, and demonstrates the power of Fantasy to engage meaningfully with current concerns.
Nina used to be a member of the Saturn Club, one of Philadelphia’s elite societies, where members engage in casual debauchery, the foolhardy flirt with alchemy and the occult, and the ambitious can inveigle themselves into the world of the rich and powerful. Along with her friends East, Amparo, Rhea, Max and Becca, Nina is set for future greatness, until one Saturnalia she walks away from it all, abandoning her future, her family and her friends for a life of poverty. Eking out a meagre living reading the tarot. Three years later, the Saturnalia carnival has come round again, and Nina gets a call from Max, her last remaining friend, who asks her for a favour. He’s willing to pay, and it will mean that Nina gets to go back to the best party in town, the Saturn Club Saturnalia celebrations, providing she can steal a box for him. Without being noticed by her ex-friends East and Amparo, who are now council members, or killed by the mysterious figure who is stalking her. Soon Nina realises that she has signed up for far more than she bargained for, as she is dragged into a world of alchemical magic gone awry and paranoid conspiracy.
Saturnalia is both vivid and hallucinatory, set in a Philadelphia wracked by extreme weather events, rising poverty and the abuse of climate refugees, through which the wild and debauched carnival of the Saturnalia celebrations whirl. The novel has the decadent atmosphere of a party at the end of the world, where the revellers engage in excess to distract from their impending doom. Feldman revels in this nocturnal atmosphere, populating her Philadelphia with costumed dancers, parade floats and teenage goth-punk motorcycle gangs. Everything hangs in the balance between the magical and the nightmarish, teetering dangerously on the knife-edge between the two. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the Saturn Club’s experiments in alchemy have been more successful than any of them could anticipate, and the fantastical encroaches on the carnival, bringing mandrake monsters and homunculi in its wake and adding to the manic sense of the end of things.
At the heart of Feldman’s novel are her wonderfully realised characters. Nina, as the disgraced ex-Club member with a terrible secret, is a compelling protagonist, but all of the central characters are remarkably well-drawn. Amparo was Nina’s best friend, East her abusive lover and Max the older mentor. As Nina discovers more about the secret mission she has been sent on, and the hidden motives and methods of the Saturn Club, the tensions which tore apart her friendship group come into full play, only this time Nina has the chance to correct the horrors of the past. Feldman takes her protagonist on a powerful journey of self-discovery in which we learn about how and why she left the Club in the first place, and Nina is able to regain agency over her life and her actions, and repair her broken friendship with Amparo and Rhea.
Saturnalia is haunted by the spectres of climate change and poverty. Walking away from the Saturn Club has meant that Nina has abandoned her promising future, disappointing her family and severing the security of wealth and prestige. Thus she experiences first hand the pressures that climate change is putting on the city’s poor. Poor accommodation is constantly being destroyed or damaged by the floods, tornadoes and other extreme weather systems brought about by climate change, and the city’s climate refugees are held in leaking, unsanitary and overcrowded camps. This is in sharp contrast to the decadent life of the Saturn Club that she has walked away from. The selfishness and destructiveness of the old white men who make up the city’s elites extends even further than partying whilst the poor starve; it ultimately turns out that the Saturn Club are trying to use the occult to see into the future so that they can secure safe areas of land for themselves and their families and abandon the rest of the city to drown or starve, whichever happens first. Feldman brilliantly satirises the selfishness and the self-obsession of the 1% with her elite who are so obsessed with trying to cheat their own mortality they are ready to commit all kinds of atrocities to do so.
Feldman’s novel is an enjoyable and compelling mixture of seemingly disparate genres, tied together by the author’s wild imagination, sharp wit and deft characterisation. Saturnalia manages to be both fun and thought provoking, an engaging work of mythic fantasy that has something to say about the world we live in. It is also a powerfully feminist work, exploring friendships torn apart by rape, the complicity of men in power in perpetuating rape culture, and LGBT themes – Rhea is a trans woman who is never punished or denigrated because of her gender identity. Feldman has created an enjoyable and powerful work of Fantasy fiction that lingers in the reader’s mind long after the final page.