Ember loves his family, even if they write off his desire to become a dancer in the circus as a mere hobby. He loves his friends, even though each of them seems to have found the key to their own happiness. He especially loves his cat. Yet there’s a feeling of stagnation growing in Ember’s heart and no amount of telling himself or his friends he’s exactly where he wants to be will alleviate it. Ember jumps at his sister-in-law’s offer to go see the always-sold-out Aurora Circus—a group of medeis performers who use their magical ability to dazzle the non-magical and act as a beacon of hope for lost medeis. In fact, it was two aerial silk dancers in that very circus that instilled the dream of becoming a dancer in Ember. Of course Ember wants to go. The tickets even includes a meet-and-greet after the show; Ember, however, can’t stomach meeting any performers. After a show so fantastic, being reminded of a world he thought he could never joint is just too painful. Instead, he wanders towards the rest of the fairgrounds…and bumps into the (literally) hottest performer at the circus: a fire dancer named Pyro.
Despite only a fleeting encounter, Ember and Pyro feel intensely drawn to each other. Every time their hands touch, warm blue flames erupt around their skin. This is a connection they definitely want to make, but Pyro is a popular part of the circus and Ember, well, he has a commitment to his job at the train station. With promises to meet again, someday, Ember tries to convince himself life is better without the circus, without his dream. But as hard as Ember tries to convince himself, his own secret magical ability flares to life. Ember can speak with the departed and while he’s tried to shut off this ability, there is one tenacious spectre who shows Ember visions a life that has everything Ember ever dreamed of: dancing and being in the circus. He also sees unfathomable things: riding through a snow-filled basin towards a secret laboratory and a pair of siblings. Suddenly, Ember has the chance to shake up his life in the most fantastic way. But the spectre’s visions are not set in stone and Ember is wary of making the wrong choices and destroying his dreams.
First, I loved these characters. We meet Ember at a point in his young life where he’s told himself that he’s got everything he wants: a house, a steady job, and his cat. But when his friends announce their future plans — getting married, traveling the world, becoming a model for a major agency — Ember suddenly realizes that his wants aren’t enough. The spectre’s visions show Ember possibilities for the future, but Ember is too shy and has been shot down too often to readily accept he might actually see his dreams of becoming a dancer come true, or that he might have a relationship with someone who makes him feel like a warm puddle of goo.
For me, Ember’s attitude and reactions felt very relatable. Oniomoh struck a fantastic balance between Ember’s self-doubt and his gumption. For example, when Ember decides to “run away and join the circus,” he encounters the medeis siblings from the spectre’s vision. All the spectre told Ember was that he had to make the right choices, but all Ember’s seen are images from a possible future. This leaves Ember constantly questioning whether he’s doing the right thing and, when he has done something, if his actions are enough to appease the spectre. Ember’s long-standing aversion to standing out as a medeis, as special, is well established. There are also times when Ember has to convince himself to do anything, even though he’s just one person and his magical ability is “just” talking to the dead. Despite years of hiding his magical abilities and telling himself a job at the train station is the pinnacle of his life, Ember takes a leap of faith by up and leaving to join the circus. Not only that, but he doesn’t ignore the spark of attraction he feels for Pyro. Even when Ember makes a less-than-ideal first impression at the circus, he sticks it out.
Pyro felt a lot more mysterious to me. This, I think, is partly because he’s already established in the exclusive, extremely popular Aurora Circus. He’s also one of the most popular performers and wildly attractive besides. I loved that he couldn’t keep his eyes of Ember from the very first time they see one another, which happens when Pyro is out in town promoting the circus while Ember’s visiting that same town. There attraction is very visible, too, because blue flames erupt from whatever point of contact they have (holding hands, kissing, etc.). The relationship between Pyro and Ember is a slow burn and I loved watching these two fall for each other. I love that the focus is always on how good they make one another feel. It was refreshing to read about two people falling in love in the absence of feelings of unworthiness. There are no angst or drama bombs, even when Pyro learns that Ember’s been hiding his magical abilities or when Ember learns why Pyro left to join the circus. I was especially taken with Oniomoh’s handling of Pyro’s backstory and the organic way (to a cisgendered reader, anyway) we learn Pyro is trans.
In addition to a delightful young-lovers story, there is plenty of thriller/action besides. The society these characters occupy is still grappling with a recently-ended policy of discrimination against medeis. This policy is why Ember keeps his magic abilities a secret; there was a time that magic users were “clipped” with special arm bands that curbed their magical abilities. During Ember’s life, this has stopped. However, part of the sub-plot and the big climax at the end all tie into the fact that hardcore anti-magic people are still looking for ways to push their anti-magic agenda (er…more or less). Part of their agenda necessarily involved the Aurora Circus itself. When the curtain is pulled back, so to speak, I was delighted to discover how things all tie together.
One final note about side stories. Ember’s group of friends and Ember’s family are integral to the first chapters of the book. Through his interactions with these groups, we get to know Ember very closely. I think it was lovely to see these two sets of supporting characters crop up throughout the book and not just to provide handy plot points. Ember’s friends text him as they go about their new lives and Ember’s family calls to keep tabs on his adventures in the circus. As far as story telling goes, including several little nods to these characters just because they’re part of Ember’s life and not because they’re going to facilitate some aspect of the action made them all the more enjoyable for me.
The Aurora Circus is simply a marvelous story. The characters are three-dimensional and compelling and I grew to care about them. Just as Ember and Pyro slowly fall in love, the plot slowly builds on itself to an exciting and emotional climax. I unreservedly recommend this book to absolutely everyone.