“Everything that has lived, dies. Everything that is dead putrefies and finds a new life.”
The slow-motion collapse of modern civilization is reason to party in Saturnalia, the new sci-fi horror by Stephanie Feldman, which takes place in a near-future Philadelphia amid growing climate disaster. As the world gradually succumbs to increasingly severe hurricanes, droughts, and killer mosquitos, the newly paganized City of Brotherly Love lets loose with Saturnalia, the riotous multi-day celebration of the winter solstice honoring the Roman god of abundance.
The protagonist of the story, Nina, is a tarot card reader formerly associated with the prestigious Saturn Club, the go-to venue for Philadelphia’s elite society and a thinly veiled center for alchemical experiments and other occultist practices. Nina knows that her fortunetelling is rubbish, but her cards may reveal more truth than she realizes.
The plot of Saturnalia focuses on Nina’s attempts to infiltrate her former club and unravel its mysteries. Nina finds the perfect opportunity to sneak into the Saturn Club unnoticed during its masquerade party, which opens the winter solstice celebration. Nina deftly navigates the labyrinthine club and discovers the horrifying secret lying beneath the façade of the Saturn Club’s debauchery.
Stephanie Feldman’s writing perfectly captures the disorienting feel of Nina’s experiences both in and out of the Saturn Club. Reading Saturnalia feels like a fever dream, full of discordant imagery that draws the reader into this hedonistic world and its bizarre social order. Combined with its nonlinear narrative structure, the novel has a disorienting quality that accurately portrays the chaos of a young woman just trying to live her best life amidst a world of apocalyptic revelry.
As a resident of Pennsylvania, I particularly enjoyed Feldman’s choice of her native Philadelphia as the setting for the novel, which is filled with references to local geography and culture. The juxtaposition of Pennsylvania’s Quaker roots with its recent embrace of paganism is particularly well done in Saturnalia.
There are many compelling facets to Saturnalia, particularly its feverish storytelling as we gradually put together the pieces of Nina’s backstory and learn the truth of the Saturn Club. Still, the plot never really takes off to the full extent I was anticipating. I was hoping for more layers to the Saturn Club’s mysteries and greater insights into the people behind the club itself.
Overall, Saturnalia offers a unique take on an apocalyptic future, striking a good balance between elements of sci-fi and horror while warning of the social impact of our impending ecological disaster.
Review originally published at Grimdark Magazine.