I was ecstatic to see a new novel from Gary Blackwood! And (for the most part) I was not disappointed.
Curiosity is the story of Rufus, a twelve-year-old born with a curvature of the spine and an inborn ability to play chess. Rufus lives in early 18th Century America. His mother died giving birth to him and he has been raised in the parsonage, where his father is employed as the Parson. He has a nanny, a large home, plenty to eat and as such is mostly sheltered from the unkindness of those who would mock or be appalled by his physical appearance and struggle.
Rufus’ entire life is upended when it becomes evident that his father has unwisely invested his money and neglected his Parson’s duties, resulting in the loss of his job–and with it the only home Rufus has ever known. Penniless and in debt, Rufus’ father is thrown into Debtors’ Prison and Rufus is ultimately placed in a boys’ home that is little better than a prison, itself.
Here Rufus’ story merges with historical figures when he is taken from the Home by a man who has seen Rufus play chess at the local Chess Club and defeat grown men who consider themselves exceptionally skilled players. Rufus finds himself living with the Curiosity Showman and Master of Mechanical Wonders Johann Maelzel, owner of The Turk, a mechanical, chess-playing marvel. The secret of the Turk, of course, is the person inside its hidden cabinet playing the actual chess game. Rufus becomes that person.
Maelzel is a brutal master, as is his engineer, Jacques (at first). Rufus’ character remains genuine throughout the book. He grows from a meek child into a young man who realizes he is allowed to choose which circumstances of his life he will accept with grace and which he will challenge for the sake of his own self-worth.
Blackwood is a master of historical fiction, able to weave a story with intriguing characters and engaging storylines that are the true definition of “page-turners!” I was a little dissatisfied with the ending of Curiosity. It felt a little abrupt to me–especially given that the rest of the book is extraordinarily well done is both character and plot. It is not enough however to take away from the way Curiosity makes 19th Century America and the Curiosity entertainment era come alive in a gripping, thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.
I highly recommend Curiosity and Blackwood’s other phenomenal historical fiction series: The Shakespeare Stealer–one of my all-time favorites!