Welcome to our new #FridayReads feature on the blog. Every week, we’ll be excerpting a chapter of one of our favorite books to start your weekend. This week, it’s Sarah Jean Horwitz’s The Wingsnatchers, a stunning middle grade debut about a magician’s apprentice and a one-winged princess who must vanquish the mechanical monsters that stalk the streets and threaten the faerie kingdom.
Scroll down for an excerpt.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, for my last and final trick! I will be performing the unimaginable, the grotesque, the miraculous! What you are about to see may shock you, but fear not. We will all come out in one piece, after all.”
Antoine the Amazifier clapped his bony hands together, relishing his own dramatic pause.
“Prepare to be amazed.”
Surely, sawing his lovely assistant in half would earn him a shriek or two from the women in the crowd. If not a shriek, then maybe at least a gasp. The Amazifier couldn’t be too picky these days.
His audience did not look particularly amazed. A handful of underfed mill workers and dirty children, tired after a long day’s work, gathered around him in what passed for the town square. The men wore stony glares, the women deep lines in their faces, and a few of the younger ones eyed the magician’s tip collection in a way that made the Amazifier nervous—not that there was much in there to begin with.
This was the blessing and the curse of running the country circuit. Far from the pressures of pleasing overentertained city audiences, who were used to all manner of marvels and delights, country crowds were a simpler folk. More often than not, they were pleased that any sort of show had come to town at all. Then, of course, you had years when the harvest was bad or when a mine shut down, and the grandest tricks in the world couldn’t get them to crack a smile—or open their wallets.
Resigning himself to another mediocre showing, the Amazifier gestured for his assistant, Kitty Delphine, to step forward. There was no response. The Amazifier cleared his throat.
“With the help of the lovely Miss Delphine!” hinted the Amazifier loudly. Kitty snapped out of her bored reverie and shimmied over to his side, the little golden bells on her costume jingling as she walked. One of the men in the crowd whistled.
The Amazifier instructed Kitty to lie down in a large black box in the center of the square. As he explained the process to the audience, brandishing a fearsome-looking saw, the third and heretofore unseen member of his entourage prepared to complete the trick without the audience ever knowing. Or at least, that was the hope.
There was a boy in the big black box, and his name was Felix Cassius Tiberius Carmer III. We’ll call him Carmer, or this book will be much longer than any of us would like.
What looked like one box to the audience was actually two. As Kitty Delphine settled herself into the first half, Carmer shoved his own skinny legs—stockinged and high-heeled, to look like Kitty’s—out of the foot openings in the second. To the audience, it appeared as if one whole girl was about to be sawed in half.
Carmer did not particularly like being stuck in a box wearing stockings and ladies’ shoes, but he knew it was necessary. Carmer was Antoine the Amazifier’s apprentice, and if he hoped to become a great magician himself one day, he had to pay his dues. Even if those dues included shaving his legs.
Carmer heard the grinding noises against the box and Kitty’s scream of pretend shock that signaled the “sawing” had begun. He wiggled his feet a bit for dramatic effect.
A few muffled, disgruntled voices echoed from outside, and Carmer tensed. If the show was going south, it would be best to wrap it up quickly before things got ugly.
“The old man’s full of it!” a teenaged boy sneered. Murmured grunts of assent followed.
“That’s a bloke in that box!” cried another.
Perhaps the wiggling feet had been a bit much.
Splat. Carmer heard the distinct ooze of rotting fruit hitting the side of the box, just near his head. He cringed at the Amazifier’s tremulous protests as the crowd grew more impatient.
“Now, just a moment, ladies and gentleman!”
Splunk. A tomato, this time.
“Get outta here!”
“Take your sorry excuse for a magic show somewhere else!”
And finally—mercifully—the sound of retreating footsteps. The Amazifier stood alone in the dirty little square, picking bits of spoiled lettuce off his velvet cloak.
Carmer shook Kitty’s shoes off his feet and shimmied out of his box. He took a moment to pop his favorite hat, an old and bedraggled top hat, back onto his head. It was too big for him, and only his large ears kept it from sliding down completely over his face.
Carmer looked at his mentor—old, hunched, and abandoned by his audience—and thought of what it must have been like when the Amazifier was in his prime, when hundreds gathered to see his every performance. Those times were long gone now.
But Carmer owed the Amazifier his life and his freedom, and he was resolved to help in any small way he could. He wished he could have done something to stop the hecklers, but cleaning up after the fact would have to do.
“We’ll pack everything up, Master Antoine,” Carmer assured the old man.
“We?” asked Kitty Delphine. She appeared to be taking a nap in her half of the box. Carmer shot her a look, and she sighed.
“You go on, just like he says,” said Kitty resignedly. She hoisted herself up and jumped down, careful to dodge the moldy cabbage in a mud pile by her feet. She pecked the Amazifier’s cheek. “Head back to the Moto-Manse and put the kettle on. We’ll be right behind you.”
Their steam-powered house on wheels, built by the Amazifier himself, was parked at the town limits. Its tendency to take up the entire road did little to endear it to most locals.
“Oh, well . . . yes, dear. All right.” The Amazifier nodded absentmindedly and tottered off. He was always like this after a bad performance.
“You think he’ll be all right?” Carmer asked once the Amazifier was out of earshot.
“Even if he’s not, we’d best shake a leg,” said Kitty, looking around nervously, “I don’t fancy it’ll be long before those folks come back wanting a double refund.”
Carmer nodded and started to wipe the grime off their box with a spare rag. The wind picked up, scattering bits of rubbish everywhere and making it hard to see through the dust. Carmer and Kitty ducked their heads against it.
Smack. A piece of paper flew right into Carmer’s face. He yanked it off and was about to toss it aside when something caught his eye. He unfolded the flyer and read it aloud.
“‘SKEMANTIAN INTERNATIONAL EXHIBITION—October 15—For the scientifically inclined, the technologically talented, or simply the curious! Featuring the newest cutting-edge technology from Titan Industries and beyond. Presented by the one and only Titus Archer himself!”
An illustration of a stern-looking man shaking hands with a brass humanoid automaton looked up at Carmer. He grinned back, all thoughts of the disastrous magic show forgotten.
“Kitty?” he called across the square. “How would you feel about a trip to the city?”