Julia Whicker’s debut novel, Wonderblood, is set 500 years from now in a barren, disease-ravaged United States that bears more resemblance to Europe of the Middle Ages than a far-flung future. A mad cow-like disease, Bent Head, has decimated the population; the survivors rove about in bloodthirsty traveling carnivals, beheading one another unrestrainedly and, in a delightful bit of invention, worshiping departed NASA space shuttles and awaiting their return. As the novel opens, mysterious comet-like lights burn across the sky and the sinister, charismatic Mr. Capulatio, whose carnival sets the bar high for decapitation and mayhem, gathers an army and steals himself a (second) bride.
In this world religion and magic have displaced science, astrology supersedes astronomy, and the feudal king—descended from astronauts—rules from a palace built over the wreckage of Cape Canaveral. The citizenry collects and preserves the heads of their enemies—and friends—for magical purposes; medicine is forbidden; human sacrifice is de rigueur (“Wonderblood” refers to a religious doctrine in which only human blood can contain the spread of disease); nobody takes baths.