A few years ago, Niki loved working for Dragonov’s Flying Circus. As a member of the rigging crew, he was responsible for erecting and striking the tents, coordinating big set pieces and props, and generally looking out for the welfare of the performers. But ever since he got caught in a storm that brought part of the big top down on him, Niki’s been different. Not only did he lose his left arm, but he also lost a lot of the spark that made being part of the circus fun. It’s more than just the fact that he needs specific aids to help him do everyday tasks like dressing. Now, he’s working with the clowns and he knows that is a big step down in terms of the circus’ social hierarchy. When an amazing new motorcycle act joins Dragonov’s, Niki is stunned that the head of the team seeks Niki out. That is until Niki realizes the hot leader is actually someone Niki used to know very well: Connor Flinn, a former circus kid. Maybe this is Niki’s chance to rekindle a friendship and his dedication to the circus.
Let Your Heart Smile is a sweet short story by author J.B. Buell. This story appealed to me because I’ve long had a fascination with the circus and, back in my fanfiction days, wanted to use a trope very much like this to write a story. I liked how well Buell works in many little details about Niki’s life at the circus and the circus lifestyle without making it feel like an info dump. The supporting cast feels appropriately sprawling, but they still demonstrate the kind of familiarity I would expect from a troupe that lives and works together. As far as world building goes, I think Let Your Heart Smile packages a circus world nearly perfectly.
When it comes to our characters, Niki is clearly the main event. The narration is third person, but we experience everything from Niki’s side of things. While the accident isn’t necessarily always on his mind, the fact that he’s missing an arm is. Niki has developed a sixth sense that lets him immediately know that someone is aware of the fact that he’s got a false arm in his clown costume. He’s also more than a little frustrated about the aides he needs to live independently, like hooks to hold his clothes while he dresses or how long it takes to apply his clown make up. Even being demoted to being a clown is a sting for him. But Niki doesn’t seem to realize how much he’s mired in dissatisfaction until the motorcycle act shows up with his old friend Connor at the lead. For me, it was easy to see how dispassionate Niki is. I just felt like there wasn’t much in the story to demonstrate how much fun Niki used to have or how much of a flirt he used to be. That made it hard for me to really get how different Niki is now.
As soon as Connor shows up, my little romance-loving heart started going pitter patter waiting to see how their reunion would unfold. It was especially juicy because Niki has so clearly written himself off as a nobody clown. The bittersweetness Niki feels at the reunion was great. Readers, I think, will clearly read Connor’s seeking Niki out as overtures to friendship and more. Niki, clearly, is just waiting for Connor to realize they can’t be friends because of the hierarchy in the circus. Despite the fact that Niki and Connor spend so little time together in this book, Buell manages to add some depth to their relationship. We get snippets of what they got up to as kids (joy riding in Connor’s dad’s car) and that they used to fool around like the preteens they were.
Taken together, the world building and the characters set an immersive stage. But there is one oddly unpolished element in the story: what (if any) relationship develops between Niki and Connor. To me, it felt like the story lacked a catharsis where Niki finally realizes/accepts that Connor wants his company. And the question of whether or not they’ll connect romantically now that Connor is back also feels like it gets left dangling in the breeze. With so little chemistry between Niki (who casts himself at the bottom of the circus hierarchy) and Connor (who Niki casts at the very top), it was all too easy to imagine Niki is just as interested in what rekindling friendship with Connor can do for Niki professionally more than personally. I wasn’t wild about how ambiguously these two get re-acquainted with one another, but it is a short story and at least the ending leaves the door wide open for positive interpretation.
Overall, Let Your Heart Smile is still a fun read. I loved that Buell focuses on the circus and its performers without including any magical/paranormal elements. The setting feels fleshed out perfectly as the backdrop for our MC and his slice-of-circus-life drama to unfold. I thought the relationship between the Niki and Connor of today was a little under-done, but I did enjoy how open-ended the story was. Readers who enjoy circus themes, friends-reunited themes, and main characters with disabilities will find a lot to enjoy in this story.