Circuses! They seem like such a safe, wholesome source of communal entertainment. Yet, many who’ve ventured under a circus big top have faced unexpected consequences—some quite dangerous for performers in real life. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the circus provides such a lively—and occasionally treacherous—setting for these five recent fantasies.
The Bones of Ruin by Sarah Raughley (2021)
High above the awed heads of the Coolie Company’s audience, Iris walks the tightrope insouciantly, showing no concern for the long drop below. Iris has a secret which she keeps from employer and audience alike: death and injury are for her but passing inconveniences.
She is forcibly recruited by The Enlightenment Committee, a secret cabal committed to reshaping the world. The Committee is riven into factions; the factions decide to resolve their difficulties with gladiatorial games. The faction that sponsors the winning gladiators will gain control of the Committee.
Whether Iris and her fellow Fanciful Freaks want to fight each other to the death is irrelevant to the Committee. It believes that it can force obedience.
But can it?
Dr. Marvellus Djinn’s Odd Scholars by B. Sharise Moore (2021)
Dr. Marvellus Djinn’s Jazz Age theme park, the Motherland, is advertised as amazing, wondrous, incredible. Take this with a grain of salt—the claims come from its empresario, who bills himself as a Scholar of Sorcery. Outside review? Four lucky candidates are given a chance to tour the Motherland before it opens.
Perhaps “lucky” is the wrong term: each of the four candidates has earned their ticket through talent and hard work. Each is exemplary in their respective field: chemistry (Elliot), ingenuity (Brenda), magical prowess (Clair), and strength (Omen).
The tour turns out to be a series of tests. Failure may mean death. Even history itself may be at stake.
Bacchanal by Veronica Henry (2021)
Circumstances have marooned Eliza in Baton Rouge, a town that would have little to offer Eliza even were this not the Great Depression, when jobs are scarce. However, the very gift that so alienates her current neighbours—the ability to communicate with animals—is just the thing to convince the Bacchanal Carnival to hire Eliza.
Eliza has concealed the fact that a fair number of the animals with whom she communicates promptly drop dead. The Carnival for its part conceals its own oddities: Some of the entertainers are monsters. The true owner of the Carnival is a monster as well; more audience members enter the Carnival than leave. Still, performers are safe enough…provided the secretive owner isn’t peckish or convinced the performer is a threat.
Which, as it turns out, Eliza is.
“The Carnival at the Edge of the Worlds” by Shveta Thakrar (Magical Women, 2019)
The Carnival exists outside time and space. Those lucky enough to find it will be offered entertainments from their wildest dreams.
Prajakta is one of the performers. She must act: she is not an actor but a puppet. She is carried out of the Carnival by an errant feline. She discovers that she now has free will. Now she must make decisions. That’s harder than it sounds.
A woman once moved by strings can now discover who she truly is. Will she like what she learns?
The Circus Infinite by Khan Wong (2022)
Half-human, half-alien, Jas is an empath…but he does not command the full range of psychic abilities his Indran heritage could have given him. What he does have is even rarer: the ability to manipulate gravity. It’s a knack uncommon enough to make him valuable. Safest for him to hide in plain sight amongst Cirque Kozmiqa’s acts, where his gift could be mistaken for simple trickery.
New coworkers become found family. It’s a bond not to be underestimated, particularly by crime-boss Niko Dax. Dax sees those around him as tools, to be used or discarded as he pleases. The possibility that a subordinate like Jas could be Dax’s downfall would never cross the criminal’s mind—not, at least, until it was far too late.
There are a lot of circus stories. No doubt you have your favourites that I neglected to mention. What can I say? It’s been a long year. Feel free to make your own recommendations in the comments!
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.