Expectations can go either way. Sometimes a book cover or a blurb influences you so much that you believe you know exactly what to expect from a story. With this novel, it was mostly the current steampunk and dystopia hype that led me to expect a Hunger Games/Parasol Protectorate knock-off. I couldn’t have been more wrong and I’m glad my prejudices didn’t keep me from discovering one of the best books I have ever read.
copy: ebook and paperback
my rating: 9,5/10
first sentence: The tent is draped with strings of bare bulbs, with bits of mirror tied here and there to make it sparkle. (It doesn’t look shabby until you’ve already paid.)
Outside any city still standing, the Mechanical Circus Tresaulti sets up its tents. Crowds pack the benches to gawk at the brass-and-copper troupe and their impossible feats: Ayar the Strong Man, the acrobatic Grimaldi Brothers, fearless Elena and her aerialists who perform on living trapezes. War is everywhere, but while the Circus is performing, the world is magic. That magic is no accident: Boss builds her circus from the bones out, molding a mechanical company that will survive the unforgiving landscape. But even a careful ringmaster can make mistakes. Two of Tresaulti’s performers are trapped in a secret stand-off that threatens to tear the Circus apart, just as the war lands on their doorstep. Now they must fight a war on two fronts: on from the outside, and a more dangerous one from within…
There are books that only take a page to make you envious of the author’s talent. Genevieve Valentine has all my envy and jealousy and respect for doing with words what she did in this debut novel. Every word is perfect, every sentence full of meaning and every chapter like a story of its own. Books like this remind me again why I read genre fiction. Because Valentine could be named among any of the contemorary greats of literature – if I had any say in it, I’d throw pretty much every literary award her way I can think of.
This is the story of a circus, told for the most part out of Little George’s point of view. He is a little boy who doesn’t miss much, and narrates the story superbly. His sparse, but poignant words put life into the characters and their sometimes unfathomable relationships to each other. We are told slowly, and chapter by chapter, who came to the circus, why they joined and – perhaps most interestingly at first – what really happened to Alec. The Winged Man has been dead since before the story starts but his death (and life, for that matter) remains a mystery.
It takes Genevieve Valentine maybe two sentences to create a character that feels like a living, breathing creature. After soaking up every word of this story, I don’t feel I truly know any of them, not at their core. I love how we don’t get smacked over the head with information, with character traits or what drives them. Valentine shows, she doesn’t tell. And sometimes she doesn’t show very much either. I love an author who trusts their readers to use their own heads to figure out what’s really going on. Having an unreliable narrator makes it even more interesting to define just what shade of grey each of the characters are.
There is a heavy steampunk element to this story, though not at all like I expected. It is not about zeppelins and goggles, the brass and copper used in this tale is well incorporated into the world and the subtle magic system. For the most part, it is a novel about people, though. About their dreams and what they’re willing to do to get to them, about their fears and about love, and how far it can push them. As emotionally layered as the circus troupe is, I wouldn’t even have needed a plot. Just discovering these brilliant people would have been enough.
But the author, mostly known for short fiction before this novel, has a plot in store for us. It may be slow to begin but turns into a suspenseful adventure with the most perfect ending I could have imagined. Except of course for the one flaw: the fact that it does end.
Stylistically, this may be a difficult read for some. Valentine jumps randomly between a third-person narrative and first-person narrative (from different characters’ points of view) to an occasional second-person narrative. As if that weren’t confusing enough at times, we switch tenses from past to present. It is further proof of her writing skill that I always knew in whose head I was and when – chronologically speaking – this particular chapter was taking place. Because being told in present tense does not automatically mean that the chapter isn’t a flashback to a few years prior to the main plot. If that makes sense to you. It is a challenge but one I was happy to take and that turned out to make a delightful change from your boring old straightly told story.
There were so many parts of this book that I found so quotable, I’d love to fill a whole notebook with it. Here’s an example of Valentine’s voice. Jonah has accidentally adopted a wolf. It’s been running around the circus but slowly turns wilder and wilder. And it’s time to take down the tents and move on.
One day the wolf was wild enough to run into the forest near their camp, hunting something only it could sense. A week later when they pulled down the tent, the wolf had not come back. “Call it, if you want,” Boss told Jonah. “We’ll wait.”
That night Jonah stood for an hour at the edge of the camp, looking into the darkness of the woods. He came back empty-handed.
Ayar frowned. “It didn’t come?”
Jonah said, “I didn’t call.”
I have no words to describe what an experience this book was. After I finished, a sadness swept over me and made me want to return (immediately) to that strange, sinister world of the Circus Tresaulti. I caught myself re-reading my favourite passages, soaking up the words. I sincerely hope Valentine will win the Nebula Award for this novel. It’s definitely one of my highlights this year, if not ever.
THE GOOD: Poetic language, playing with styles, deeply touching characters, suspenseful plot, original use of steampunk.
THE BAD: If anything, it was too short.
THE VERDICT: A challenging, unique read that has haunted me all year and is recommended to anyone who reads speculative fiction.
RATING: 9,5/10 – Damn near perfection!
Read the first five chapters for free as well as three short stories in the world of Circus Tresaulti (also highly recommended, especially the one about Panadrome, “Study, for Solo Piano“).