Carnival of Heaven (2019) – Ryan Patrick Olson

Title:Carnival of Heaven
Author:Ryan Patrick Olson
Publication date:2019
Publisher:Independently published
Star rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Ryan Patrick Olson the author kindly sent me a copy in exchange for an honest review.

Carnival of Heaven is part memoir, part epic YA adventure and part philosophical guide. In so many ways it is difficult to separate the fantasy from the reality, and the reality is that the hero of this story is Ryan, a kid who has been diagnosed with T-cell leukemia. He’s a pretty normal kid with two loving parents, a little brother named Shawn, and a fondness for a Dungeons and Dragons type game called Conqueror’s Quest. He’s also really into video games, owns a stuffed toy platypus and is looking forward to Christmas and his upcoming birthday party. In this devastatingly beautiful book the author tells the story of his cancer journey and also takes the reader on another kind of journey into the world of magic and dreams, where curious creations and talking animals are still not as frightening as real life.

In real life Ryan is admitted to hospital, and is understandably terrified. He is lucky to have a very loving and supportive family constantly with him, and to be taken care of by Dr. Azikiwe and Vicki, a nurse. At night though while asleep in his hospital bed with his toy platypus Webber, Ryan finds himself ‘waking up’ inside an amusement park that he once dreamed about and helped build with his mom. Once upon a time Ryan created Awesome Waters, a park that was friendly and fun and he would wake up and talk about it with his mother who would then help him draw up the blueprints for this magical place. However now that Ryan is sick he doesn’t appear to be in the same place, and instead finds himself wandering around a dark and sinister park run by Lyman, a frightening looking man in a ghostly mask who refers to himself as The Harbinger of Despair. Lyman and his sidekick, Petey, a hard-drinking and chain-smoking rat, are very quick to inform Ryan that the Awesome Waters he created and once found solace in is no longer the same water park it once was when he was healthy. Lyman calls it The Carnival of Heaven, and in here Ryan sees his future and it is a very scary place.

In this nightmarish carnival Webber, Ryan’s toy platypus, can talk, and together they plan to fight Lyman and Petey and figure out what exactly became of the once Awesome Waters. In the real world Ryan is battling chemotherapy, losing his appetite and becoming weaker and weaker. Inside the Carnival Lyman and Petey threaten him with violent and terrifying rides, and continuously mock his friendship with Webber who refers to himself as Ryan’s Guardian of Hope in this strange new life of his.

“Not a fan of the spotlight? Well, if you can’t stand it now, I’d give up. Surviving leukemia means a lifetime under the microscope”

As months pass and Ryan loses weight and his hair, and also hope, he also gains a friend in the form of another young boy named Michael who also has leukemia. The two share a room and quickly become friends and this is mostly due to Michael’s general good nature and genuine belief in their mutual recovery. Ryan tells Michael all about the Carnival of Heaven, and they spend hours discussing it whilst playing video games and vowing to be friends when this is all over. Despite Michael’s positivity and his family’s support and love, Ryan is not entirely convinced that he will get better and his interactions with Lyman and Petey become darker and rather morbid. During his time in the hospital he has lost faith in himself and in his ability to get better, and refuses to discuss the carnival with his family because he fears this will just disappoint them.

Olson’s novel blends the realities of being a child treated for cancer in a hospital and the affects this has on the families of sick children, with the psychological creation of a dream-scenario in which much like in fairy tales the main character is the hero that needs to defeat the villains thrown in his path. In this case Lyman and Petey represent a frightening mystery that only Ryan can solve. In the Carnival of Heaven every day is a chance to learn something new about not only his relationship with others but also to learn about his relationship with himself, and as a kid this is not an easy thing to do.

Olson’s writing is impeccable, and his talent for story-telling is extraordinary as he creates a world for himself that will ultimately be a place not just for healing, but also for readers to acknowledge the power of the imagination, and how important that is even when we are growing up. His story is important and I felt honored to take that journey with him in Carnival of Heaven, and to learn that magic and faith are still just as important now as they were when our favorite toys were our best friends. An incredible story about love, faith, hope, friendship and the power of imagination and the role it plays in healing our hearts and our gentle (and extraordinary) human bodies.

“…. suffering is not unique, but rather a universal constant. No matter what you’ve been through, there are countless others going through the same – or worse. Some live, others die, but in the end, what do our actions accomplish? Is everything we do on this planet meaningless? Are our lives to begin with hope, decay to suffering, and inevitably end in despair?

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