Hello, everyone! I’m excited to bring you this review of Before We Disappear by Shaun David Hutchinson because for a minute it felt like it would never happen. I had this book on my monthly TBR for three months before I was finally able to read it. While, it wasn’t what I was expecting, I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.
The Prestige meets What If It’s Us in Before We Disappear, a queer ahistorical fantasy set during the 1909 Seattle Alaska–Yukon–Pacific Exposition, where the two assistants of two ambitious magicians find themselves falling in love amidst a bitter rivalry designed to tear them apart.
Jack Nevin’s clever trickery and moral flexibility have served him well his entire life—making him the perfect assistant to the Enchantress, one of the most well-known stage magicians in early-twentieth-century Europe. Without Jack’s steady supply of stolen tricks and copycat sleight-of-hand illusions, the Enchantress’s fame would have burned out long ago—not that she would ever admit it.
But when they’re forced to flee the continent for America, the Enchantress finds a new audience in Seattle at the 1909 Alaska–Yukon–Pacific World’s Fair Exposition. She and Jack are set to make a fortune until a new magician arrives on the scene. Performing tricks that defy the imagination, Laszlo’s act threatens to overshadow the Enchantress and co-opt her audience. Jack has no choice but to hunt for the secrets behind Laszlo’s otherworldly illusions—but what he uncovers isn’t at all what he expected.
What makes Laszlo’s tricks possible is, unbelievably, a boy that can seemingly perform real magic. Wilhelm’s abilities defy all the laws of physics. His talents are no clever sleights-of-hand. But even though Laszlo and Wilhelm’s act threatens to destroy the life Jack and the Enchantress have built, Jack and Wilhelm have near-instant connection. As the rivalry between the Enchantress and Laszlo grows increasingly dangerous and dire, Jack finds he has to choose between the woman who gave him a life and the boy who is offering him love. It’s a new star-crossed romance about the magic of first love from acclaimed author Shaun David Hutchinson.
I was surprised quite a bit by this book because it wasn’t anything like I expected it to be. I went into it expecting a rivals to lovers story set in the early 1900s that was focused on magic. However, the main characters never really felt like rivals to me. It also didn’t feel like the early 1900s. The writing made the story feel contemporary with the use of some current idioms, and it just didn’t really do a great job of setting the tone of that time period. The fair was a really fun setting, though, and I wish it had been developed a little bit more. The magic also wasn’t as large of a piece of the story as I expected. I loved what was there, though, and getting to see the ins and outs of being a magician during this time period was fun, even if there wasn’t as much of it as I would’ve liked.
I also wasn’t expecting trauma and abuse to play such a huge role in the story. Both of the main characters were children who had been “adopted” by different magicians to help in their shows. The magicians horribly abused them, in emotional and physical ways. Wilhelm was often severely physically abused/neglected throughout this story. At one point he was even kept in a cage, which was important later on in the plot but really did make me uncomfortable while reading it. I’m not sold on the need for all of the abuse depictions to make this a good story, but seeing some of it was probably necessary to understand the motivations of and dynamics between the main characters. It just felt a bit heavy handed at times.
Speaking of the characters, Jack and Wil were definitely the stars of this book. The characters felt complex, and their motivations were interesting. The relationship between them was my favorite thing about this book. I was worried at first that it would be a relationship where Jack obsessed over saving Wil. I usually hate stories with insta-love combined with the savior complex. However, there was a great deal of growth in both characters as a result of their relationship. They both learned that they were worth saving and ended up rescuing each other in different ways. The rest of the characters, especially the magicians, felt a bit one-dimensional, but I still enjoyed reading them. As villains, the magicians were truly unlikable in the extreme, especially Laszlo, due to their greediness and selfishness, which seemed to be the only traits they possessed.
The other side characters were mostly there to provide lessons regarding sexism and racism. I liked that the book tackled these topics and even enjoyed the characters it used to do so. However, it was an odd choice to remove homophobia from the book but leave in the sexism and racism of the time period. It only added to the feeling that this wasn’t set in the early 1900s and was a missed opportunity to explore navigating a same sex relationship during that era. Although, I can also appreciate the author’s sentiment of just wanting to write a joyful gay love story from that time without having to address the ugliness of hate that likely would have accompanied it. It was just odd to have the other -isms and all the abuse included so prominently in the book but not homophobia.
The writing and pacing were both enjoyable and kept me engaged throughout the book. I liked the shorter chapters and alternating POVs because it kept the story moving forward at a nice pace. I loved the ending. It was very satisfying and utilized the magic in a way that I wished was more prevalent throughout the rest of the book.
Overall, I enjoyed this book even if it was quite different from my expectations. I don’t recommend it for those sensitive to depictions of abuse/neglect of minors, but anyone else who enjoys queer YA romance should definitely give it a shot. Therefore, I rate it 4 out of 5 stars.