The end of the first world war brought with it many things, among them … magic. No one knows the reason, no one knows how it happened, but people across the world were granted the ability to change shapes, glow, grow wings and fly, or create miracles. It was called the Spark and it changed the world.
The Ringmaster’s circus is a place of wonder. A woman can change into any animal she wants; one man can turn into a dozen; a husband and wife can grow from the size of children to the size of giants. They bring joy and laughter to a world healing from pain and despair. Where they go is music and light, popcorn and dreams. Rin, the Ringmaster who jumps through time and space; her wife, Odette, the healer; and Mauve, the seer — these women change lives.
A man about to make a decision to end his life will find himself called to the circus and, for one moment, feel hope again. A young man trying to sell his brother to the circus because he cannot afford to feed him is granted a wish: to have his mother alive, again. And … it is granted. The mother lives, the brothers never need to visit the circus. From one city to the next, through rain and storm and sun, the circus changes lives.
But not all circuses are like Rin’s circus. The Circus King is stalking them. His black tents, black cars, and black train skulk through the world like a shadow, leaving pain and fear and horror in its wake. And he’s coming for Rin.
There is a large trigger warning for this book, which is a combination of magical realism and horror, and that’s the horrific mental and emotional abuse the Circus King (Edward) inflicts upon his wife, Ruth — aka, Rin, the Ringmaster. Rin’s Spark is moving through time; it’s how the two of them met, as she inadvertently saved him from the trenches during the Great War. Edward fixated on Ruth, obsessed over her. With his magical ability to mentally dominate and control people, he pushed her into a relationship and then a marriage where he gaslit her, emotionally abused her, and mentally tortured her. And, for all that this book is framed within giant circus tents, that’s very much the focus of this story.
Rin, a Jewish woman, escaped her husband, but it wasn’t easy. He had put so much self-doubt, self-loathing, and guilt upon her that she didn’t know who she was. It was her fault he told her, again and again, that people died, that her mother left her, that he suffered. She was lazy, cruel, and stupid. But he loved her. And, because he told her so, she loved him. For all that she spends much of the book free of him, with Odette and Mauve and the rest of her circus around her, Rin has never really been free of Edward. (There’s even an implication that Edward encouraged her drinking or made her an alcoholic in order to keep her more docile.)
When one of Mauve’s visions sees World War II, the concentration camps, the millions of deaths of Jewish people, homosexuals, and Sparks (and so many others), the three women decide to try to stop it. Again and again and again, going forward, going backward, trying in small ways and large to stop what they know is happening. Added into this is Jo, the young farm girl with a powerful Spark who can make illusions and who sees in Rin a hero. A woman standing up for herself, standing up for Sparks, standing up for Jo. Jo, like Edward, fixates … but hers is adoration and honest love, much as Odette’s love is honest.
Odette, Rin’s wife, is a healer with a gift similar to Edward’s, so much so Rin can’t bear to be touched by Odette’s bare hands. Odette who loves her, who holds her, who grieves each time Rin hurts herself trying to help others and yet honors Rin’s request to not use her Spark on her. For Odette, Rin isn’t the center of the world, the king pole in the tent the way she is to Edward and Jo. For Odette, Rin is her heart. Her wife. The part of her life she holds most precious, even as she allows Rin to be weak, to be flawed, to be drunk and angry and human.
I wanted to like this book more than I did. Magical people with awe inspiring powers fighting to stop a war? A circus of light versus a circus of dark? A woman breaking free from the monster who nearly broke her, finding the strength to stand up for herself in the people who loved her? I wanted that. I wanted all of that. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t linger enough on one part or the next to form a cohesive whole. The three women try to stop the war, but eventually just give up. Not because it’s hard, but because it’s inevitable. The future isn’t going to change, which somewhat undercuts the idea of their circus in which they supposedly change the future one life at a time. The good circus versus the evil one is built up and up by inference and by Rin’s horror, but it’s more of a way to explain Edward coming back into the story, and it didn’t really work for me. Edward, whose point of view (wonderfully slimy, entitled, selfish, and vile, so vile) is a force through the book, but his circus just never really does anything.
The writing is strong, the character work — especially with Rin and Edward — is so very strong. I had a clear idea of who Rin was, of which of the voices in her head were her own doubts, and which were planted there by Edward. Edward, himself, is a glorious villain. He’s every insecure and arrogant, whiny and powerful manboy who thought he deserved the woman he wanted, and deserved her love for nothing. There were moments I felt pity for him, but never a moment where he was painted with sympathy. Empathy, yes, but he deserved his fate and I thought his ending was perfect.
There’s a message in this book, and it’s one I very much appreciated:
“A mitzvah is the work we are responsible for, as long as we are part of the living world,” her mother said. “We are here to bring light to the dark. And it’s not a charity, and it’s not a special congratulations. It’s just the right thing to do.”
I just wish the book had given one of the three plot points — Rin, the oncoming war, or the circus — a stronger ending. Or that the book had a stronger focus to tie the three disparate parts of the story together a little tighter. I felt like there were so many dangling threads left ignored rather than unresolved, and I ended the book feeling a little dissatisfied with how everything came together. These are all just my opinions; every reader will bring something different to a book, and take something away from it all their own. If you do decide to pick up this book, I hope you enjoy it.