Robyn Reviews: Circus of Wonders

‘Circus of Wonders’ is a gritty yet engaging slice of historical fiction, following the life of Nell as she is thrust from quiet village life into the blood, sweat, and glitter of Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders. It’s beautifully written, drawing the reader in and building a gorgeous sense of atmosphere and tension throughout. When the curtain falls – as it must – the story lingers. This isn’t always a happy story, but it’s an evocative and worthwhile read.

In the year 1866, Nell picks violets for a living. Her entire world is her beloved brother, her swims in the sea – and the disdain from the rest of the village for the birthmarks covering her skin. When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in her village, Nell’s insular life is thrown into disarray. Sold by her father to Jasper Jupiter as his newest curiosity, she finds herself alone – but, for the first time in her life, she also finds herself admired rather than scorned. Slowly, she finds friendship – and fame. But fame is a fickle beast, and the higher Nell flies, the further she has to fall.

The novel is told from three perspectives – Nell’s, Jasper Jupiter’s, and Jasper’s brother Toby’s. Each lends the story a slightly different angle – but while each is initially cast into a role, as the story goes on each casts free from their initial mooring, becoming far more complex than they first appeared. Nell starts as the victim. Set apart by her birthmarks, she is the subject of mockery in her village, and even her loving brother sees her as different – and thus inferior. When her father sells her, it’s the lowest moment in her life – she feels lower than an animal, trapped in a cage. However, as time passes, she goes from the victim to the hero, the star of the show. The fame is addicting, glorious – and she grows drunk on success, dreaming of dizzier and dizzier heights. She can’t connect to a simple village life like her brother’s any more – not when she can be such a wonder. However, for all her glory, she’s still trapped – still that animal in a cage. Her thoughts on the dichotomy are fascinating. Nell isn’t always likeable, but it’s still impossible not to root for her, and fear for her inevitable fall.

Jasper, of course, starts as the villain. He’s marched into Nell’s peaceful village and purchased her like a prize pony. He’s a bully, beating his workers when they don’t do what he wants and forcing everyone to play along to his whims. He expects the women to cater to his pleasure, and he’s certain Nell will fall in line. However, even villains have other sides to their story. Jasper is selfish and needlessly cruel, but he’s also wounded and grieving. He’s naive, taking risks without paying attention to the consequences. He sees himself as a genius, fills himself up with his own importance – and no-one in his life holds him accountable. No-one ever has. Jasper is a horrible person, but more of a spoilt child than someone deliberately calculating and cruel. His fall is as predictable as Nell’s and, despite everything, by the end it’s hard not to feel sorry for him too.

Where Nell and Jasper are protagonist and antagonist, Toby is the supporting cast. As a child, Toby dreamed of the circus he and his brother would create together – but while Jasper has the strength, charisma, and attractiveness to be a star, Toby is seen as dull. Simple. The sort of person who can only fade into the background. Toby has spent his entire life in his brother’s shadow. He longs to step into the spotlight himself, but he can’t – he’s too scared, and he can’t betray his brother. Initially, Toby is the sort of character to be pitied. However, as his role grows and he starts to take more control over his life, he becomes far more complex. By the end, Toby is my favourite of the main characters. He isn’t entirely a good person – he’s done some awful things, and been complicit in far more – but he’s exceptionally loyal, and he always tries to be better than he is.

The atmosphere this novel creates is incredible. The circus seems to live and breathe, every sense hit in some way. MacNeal creates visceral images – not always pleasant, but always a feast for the senses. The plot is almost secondary to the simple feel of the circus in motion. There’s a constant underlying tension. The performers twirl across the stage, reaching dizzier and dizzier heights – but at some point the curtain will come down, and the show will end. The only questions are what the final act will be – and what happens next.

The denouement, when it happens, is a predictable but fitting end. There’s an epilogue, offering a little insight into the fallout. I have mixed feelings about epilogues – I’m a big fan of ambiguity, and allowing readers to muse on their own endings – but this is one of the stronger ones, still leaving the door open for the reader to fill in the gaps.

Overall, ‘Circus of Wonders’ is an engaging piece of historical fiction with an exceptional sense of atmosphere and characters who linger. A recommended read.

Thanks to NetGalley and Picador for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Picador
Hardback: 13th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Viscount Who Loved Me

‘The Viscount Who Loved Me’ is the second book in Julia Quinn’s ‘Bridgerton’ saga, a series of historical romance novels following each member of the Bridgerton family in their quests for marriage and love. This particular installment focuses on Anthony Bridgerton, the eldest son, and is expected to be the inspiration for the second season of the Netflix show. Quinn continues to prove herself excellent at writing witty, humorous characters, and the chemistry she creates is just as electric as it was for Daphne and Simon in ‘The Duke and I‘.

A year has passed since the events of the first book, and the ton is gearing up for another season. This year, the diamond of the season is none other than Edwina Sheffield, a relative unknown from Somerset making her debut alongside her older sister Kate. Of course, the most eligible bachelor is one Viscount Anthony Bridgerton – but this season, Anthony has decided it’s time for him to settle down and find a wife. Naturally, he’ll settle for nothing less than the season’s diamond – but Kate knows more than enough about Anthony’s reputation and has no intention of allowing such a rake near her sister. The two regularly find themselves matching wits. However, when Kate finds her hatred morphing to grudging respect and then to something far more dangerous, she starts to wonder if her opposition to Anthony and Edwina marrying is to protect her sister – or to protect her own heart.

Kate Sheffield makes an absolutely spectacular heroine. Not particularly dignified, with any beauty she might possess completely overshadowed by her younger sister, she instead gets by with a sharp tongue and sharper wits. She adores her sister, placing Edwina’s happiness far above her own, and is quite content to let marriage pass her by and simply retire alone in the country. She also has a brilliant corgi, Newton – appalling trained but undeniably loveable, he leads to some of the funniest and best moments in the entire book.

Anthony played a very minor role in ‘The Duke and I’, but given centre stage here he shines. Like Kate, Anthony is devoted to his family – although his is considerably larger and more complicated – but he’s also far more troubled than he shows on the outside. Losing his father at eighteen, the most important person in his life, affected him deeply – and while he knows it’s his duty to marry and produce an heir, he cannot fathom falling in love with someone and risking that level of loss again. His verbal sparring with Kate is a delight, but the real tension is around waiting for the two to stop hiding everything and start trusting each other.

Like in ‘The Duke and I’, a good portion of the plot revolves around miscommunication and misunderstanding – a common trope in the romance genre, but one which can become frustrating when over-used. Quinn just about manages to keep the tension exciting rather than a chore, helped by the clear affection and chemistry between Kate and Anthony. She also excels at humorous scenes – Kate and Anthony’s Pall Mall game being a clear highlight. Daphne and Simon only play a very minor role, but Colin and Eloise get more page time – both are fantastic characters, which makes me intrigued to get to their installments of the series.

Overall, ‘The Viscount Who Loved Me’ is an excellent historical romance packed with humour and fun. It’s a very light read, but if that’s what you’re looking for it comes highly recommended.

Published by Piatkus
Paperback: December 5th 2000

Robyn Reviews: The Duke and I

‘The Duke and I’ is the first novel in Julia Quinn’s popular ‘Bridgerton’ series, recently adapted into a hit Netflix show. It’s a surprisingly humorous and witty historical romance which – other than one notable scene – makes an enjoyable, quick read.

Daphne Bridgerton knows that the rest of her life depends on her securing an advantageous marriage match. However, while she has formed friendships with most of the eligible men in London, none of them see her as a desirable marriage prospect. Enter one Simon Basset, the newly-titled Duke of Hastings. The Duke has no intention of marrying – despite every mother in town seeking his hand for their daughter – and merely wants to go about his business in peace. The two hatch a cunning plan – they will pretend to form an attachment. A woman who has the attentions of a Duke will seem a highly desirable match indeed, and all the ambitious mothers will assume Simon has found his Duchess and leave him alone. However, the more time Daphne and Simon spend together, the more their ruse starts to feel real…

Daphne makes an excellent protagonist. She’s charming, witty, and unafraid to speak her mind or stand up for herself. She’s naive and immature, and prone to making unwise decisions, but her intentions are usually good. She can be a tad self-centred, but then she’s an aristocrat who’s likely always gotten her own way. Daphne isn’t necessarily the most unique character, and there’s a touch of ‘not like other girls’ about her, but she’s engaging and that’s all she needs to be.

Simon, on the other hand, is less of a paragon of masculinity than is sometimes seen in historical romance, which is refreshing. Yes, he’s a duke, and a devastatingly handsome one at that, but he’s also dealing with a number of issues – mostly centering around his terrible father – and struggles with a speech impediment. Like Daphne, Simon is clever and fond of a good quip, and their chemistry is remarkable. It’s clear right from the start that the two make an excellent match, and their relationship is highly believable.

The plot is relatively standard historical romance fare, but beyond one twist is still enjoyable and suits the characters and setting. Quinn is an excellent writer, especially of dialogue, and there are a few laugh-out-loud moments. Everything is kept mostly light-hearted, and it’s easy to read this in a single sitting. It makes the perfect read at the end of a long day when you want something simple.

The one issue this book has is a scene of female-on-male sexual assault. The male character has made it quite clear that he doesn’t consent to a particular act, yet – while he is intoxicated – the female character knowingly chooses to do it anyway. She acknowledges afterwards that it was wrong, but states she doesn’t regret it, and after a time is forgiven for her actions. This scene made me very uncomfortable, especially how it was later glossed over and – in some ways – made to seem like a positive thing in the long run. Female-on-male sexual assault is given a lot less attention than male-on-female, and works which minimise it will only cause further hurt to victims.

Overall, ‘The Duke and I’ is an enjoyable read packed with light humour – other than one scene which tars the story. It’s a shame that it was included (and an even bigger shame that it was translated in the same form into the TV show with no further commentary). My biggest hope is that a greater public lens will spark positive and progressive discussion around the issue of female-on-male sexual assault, rather than minimise it further. If you’ve watched the show, or are considering watching it, this is a recommended read – with the caveat that one scene may be distressing.

Published by Piatkus
Paperback: 5th January 2000