Harry Houdini’s niece discovers a talent for real magic in this 1926-set YA novel.
Until age 12, Piper Weiss lives in an orphanage and a series of foster homes that never quite work out, mainly because bizarre things always seem to happen around her. Then Piper’s father—gaunt and pale, with cavernous eyes—arrives, taking her to live with her uncle Ehrich Weiss, who is better known to the world by his stage name: Harry Houdini. He and his wife, Bess, are childless, and they welcome Piper, who enjoys her new life of good food, silk sheets, and a backstage view of Houdini’s performances. Although Houdini is dedicated to exposing fraudulent mediums, Piper has unsettling encounters with the genuinely supernatural (including, for example, zombies). She learns to walk through mirrors and also discovers nefarious plans to reanimate freak-show corpses and create a demonic army. Meanwhile, in London, the 13-year-old daughter of Arthur Conan Doyle has an urgent message for Houdini from the spirit world: “For the human race to survive, the girl must survive. But for the girl to survive, the magician must die.” It seems the end times are coming, and Piper has a role to play—but first she’ll have to escape a black magician’s minion called Flapper, the vampire vamp. Herdling (Fantastic Four/Inhumans: Atlantis Rising, 2014, etc.) offers a wildly entertaining story. Barring a few anachronisms, he uses his Roaring ’20s backdrop to great advantage. The slang-slinging Flapper is a particularly successful creation; like other minor characters, she’s well-rounded and not unsympathetic, which manages to make her even more chilling. Piper is an appealing heroine: a scrappy Annie-like orphan who stands up for her friends with courage and wit. Her rise from orphan to pampered niece is irresistible fantasy, but Herdling seldom takes his story to expected places. He lucidly explains complicated matters, from how to escape a straitjacket to Egyptian theories of the soul. Disappointingly, though, the book leaves readers waiting for resolution with few storylines resolved; however, a sequel is planned.
Plenty of storytelling magic, although the story’s not yet finished.
Piper Houdini: Apprentice of Coney Island has won the award for best young adult novel in the 2016 Halloween Book Festival, earning it a distinguished place at the Table of Honor!