“[…]All he needed was a little faith.”
“In humanity?” Ginger asked dryly.
[Lacey] met his gaze directly.
“Don’t be ridiculous. In the circus.” — Location 2587, Kindle Edition
I haven’t stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to finish a book since I was in my 20s. A Circus of Brass and Bone, however, not only kept me up most of the night reading but also proves that not all circuses/carnivals in fiction are questionable at the least, creepy on average, and downright evil at worst.
The individuals in the Loyale Traveling Menagerie, Hippodrome, Circus, and Museum of Educational Novelties are not all good, and some of them are downright creepy, but the circus itself is probably the sanest place in what remains of the world.
Stiff upper lip and noblesse oblige be damned, the situation seemed to him to call for some old-fashioned screaming and running around waving your arms in the air. — Location 989
The book opens with the Ringmaster’s dead body and continues into a post-Civil War End of the World, wherein an unsuspecting scientist ignites the fire “aether” and starts a worldwide chain reaction with destructive and fatal results. And understand: I don’t mean the world ends and the story is set in a neo-postbellum era. I mean the story itself is set post-Civil War when this accident occurs. Some of the characters even fought in the war. The British colonization of India also plays a (minor, but not unimportant) part.
There are some earlier chapters exploring the End of the World from a “common folk” perspective, including a child who is dealing with trying to find a job during the days of NINA, but once the circus arrives on land those characters are out of sight out of mind (which was too bad; I hope Ms. Staffin-Wiebe comes back to this world one day to follow William’s story as well). There are duplicitous rubes and spies spying on spies, a mystic mahout and his wondrous elephant of brass and bone, and the most dangerous creatures aren’t the lions and ostriches of the circus but what’s left of humanity after the aether storms.
“Rule Number 4 [of being a clown]: Keep extra explosives on hand. You never know when they’ll be useful.” — Location 2008
Usually, a book that covers this much territory would run the risk of seeming disjointed and incoherent, but A Circus of Brass and Bone is delightful in its intertwining of steampunk (via magic), travelogue, escape story, and much more. The characters have very distinct voices and are each driven by their wants (rather fiercely, in the case of both Jonathan Matzke, The Man So Thin He Wears a Wedding Ring As a Belt! and Lacey Moeller, The Fabulous Lady Equestrienne Who Defies the Firey Rings of Death!). And there are those whose driving passions are under a thin surface veneer, such as Ginger, the whitefaced clown or Dr. Christopher Janzen, The Great Doctor Panjandrum and His Amazing Panacea That Cures All Ills!; thin, but still knowable if one is willing to look (the reader, as it happens, is allowed inside both their minds far enough to learn for themselves).
Knowing the effects of the aether storm on its survivors could be crucial scientific knowledge, but the uneducated rarely offered up their relatives’ bodies for dissection. — Location 1960
There are secrets and lies within the circus and without, and many times the characters find themselves not where they thought they were at all. But they stick together, freaks, normals, and all, because the circus is all the family most of them have.
The show, after all, and even in the face of the End of the World, must go on.