By Gene O’Neill (Bad Moon Books; 2009)

I’ve never been shy in admitting I don’t like SHADOW OF THE DARK ANGEL, the previous novel by Gene O’Neill. His follow-up is this science fiction-tinged novella, which went down far better with me. DOC GOOD’S TRAVELLING SHOW is intriguing and absorbing, set in a minutely detailed future world with a scope that borders on epic. It’s only 83 pages, yet the book never feels the slightest bit rushed or compressed.

The story begins in “post-collapse” California near the “San Fran” ruins. There 22-year-old Drake (who narrates) and his mute younger brother Littlejoe are leaving their Aunt Vee and Uncle Laz, the only family they’ve ever known, to find employment with a traveling magic show manned by one Doc Good. The trade-off takes place in the shadow of the San Fran Shield, an engineering marvel whose imperious agents, dubbed Companymen, run the country.

Drake and Littlejoe’s act is an impressive one involving levitation and knife throwing. Their not-entirely-illusory “illusions” (we don’t learn until the final pages the true nature of D & L’s tricks) become a big hit with the traveling show’s patrons but prove controversial among its performers, some of whom believe the boys are in league with Satan. Equally controversial are the protagonists’ romantic hook-ups, Drake with an acrobat named Li and Littlejoe with a dancer named Cher.

There’s further trouble on the horizon: the boys are threatened with separation for the first time since they were toddlers, Cher becomes pregnant, and, worst of all, the Companymen get wind of D & L’s act and make trouble for Doc Good. This leads to a sacrifice–a considerable one–and a daring subterfuge.

It’s a mighty rare case when a novella contains a bit of everything, but this one comes close. Not being a huge sci fi fan, I much preferred the intimate character-based details to the lengthy descriptions of the shield and its hierarchy–which, in a witty and probably unprecedented touch, extend to the author’s bio (which posits that Gene O’Neill “lives in relative obscurity near the San Fran Ruins”). Suffice it to say that the book is an uncommonly good one: tight, lively and fulfilling, not unlike a gourmet meal served in a single course.