With a serial killer loose on Carnival Row, and a government that turns a blind eye to the deaths of its lower class citizens, Rycroft Philostrate, a war-hardened investigator, is the only person willing to stop the murders and maintain the fragile peace. But when Vignette Stonemoss, a faerie refugee, turns up in the Burgue, she forces Philo to reckon with a past he’s tried to forget.
I was quite intrigued as soon as I watched the teaser for this superb dark fantasy (“neo-noir”) TV series on Amazon’s Prime Video. The world it offers is really interesting. It doesn’t feel entirely original since it is constituted by a blend of mythos that oozed from our collective psyche (legendary creatures mostly from celtic or classical lores) and it seems inspired by various literary classics (you’ll find little hints of Shakespeare, of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, of Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo, of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, or a little Jack The Ripper and even a bit of Lovecraft), but it is all put together in a very clever and inspiring manner.
In an alternate Victorian world, a British-like country (a city-state named The Burgue) is fighting a German-like folk (The Pact, which remains quite mysterious throughout the series) over new territory to increase their colonial empire. It seems set in a period similar to the Boer War mixed with some aspects of WWI. Strangely, this society looks almost like the Victorian or Edwardian era from our world, but with slight differences in technologies and with everything having akin but different names. For example, the religion they practice is very similar to Christianity (with the typically puritan attitude of the Victorian England) but the Christ is called the Martyr and is represented as a hangman on the gallows instead of a cross!
As The Burgue is losing the war, refugees from their invaded colonies are starting to flow into the London-like city-state creating social problems and racial frictions. It would be a normal historical drama if those population were not made of mythical creatures like faeries (fae), goblins, pucks, kobolds, werewolves, centaurs, etc. In the middle of all this, Rycroft Philostrate — a police inspector with a mysterious past and an identity crisis — is investigating a series of gruesome murders and is somewhat reunited with his long lost lover, Vignette Stonemoss.
Carnival Row is an excellent steampunk story (they still use coal but also telegraph, electricity, airships, gatling guns and small rockets). It is full of mystery, moral (battle of good vs evil, high society vs the slums), politics, forbidden love (inter-racial and LGBTQ+) and even sex (faeries are apparently quite sexual creatures). It tackles very contemporary themes, like social inequity, immigration, feminism or racism. This series is a real advocacy for tolerance and diversity, a call to rediscover and preserve the magic that is in our hearts. It makes me realize that steampunk (and Neo-victorian), as a genre, is really getting popular — we start noticing it more and more in novels, in anime and manga, and now even in TV series.
This series is quite captivating (I binged the first season in a couple of days) and incredibly well-made (superb special effects and costumes), with a great cast (Orlando Bloom, Cara Delevingne, Indira Varma, Jared Harris) and an excellent storytelling. It will surely be the event of the season. I found it both fascinating and entertaining, and cannot understand the poor reception it got from the critics (54% on Rotten Tomatoes !) although it was better appreciated by the public (87% on Rotten Tomatoes and 8.1 on IMDb). I admit that the ending of the first season was a little predictable and disappointing (aren’t they all — but this one does solve the identity crisis of the main character and the murder mystery). Some people complained that the folks of the Pact were never properly introduced or developed, but I am sure that more will be explained in the second season (I can’t wait to see where the plot will take us). No, this series is definitely a must-see (be sure to check also the behind the scene videos) and I highly recommend it.
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