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A Circus of Brass and Bone, by Abra Staffin-Wiebe

Review copy provided by author. For further disclosure, the author is a personal friend, and we’re in the same writing group, although the group did not critique this book.

A Circus of Brass and Bone is a dark fantasy set in an aether-powered alternate 19th century, and it starts with catastrophe. It was originally an online serial, but I hate serials (haaaaaate), so I didn’t read it that way, because then I would hate a book that didn’t deserve it.* The story follows a circus caravan through the ravaged northeast, as its members try to figure out who they can trust (inside the circus as well as among “civilians”) and how they can survive. There’s a lot of worldbuilding here–the world has a texture and a past that appeals even as it appalls–clearly lots of thought about what the aetheric applications are and what they can do, most of which is entirely backstory because the entire system is completely blown to shreds. Logistics are not foregrounded here but are important. Also relationships with animals vary realistically and interestingly, as you would hope for (but not always get) in a circus novel. The ending ties up the personal-level problems but not the world-level ones, leaving plenty of room for sequels or related work in the same setting if Abra decides to go that direction.

If I hadn’t heard another friend saying that it was too creepy for her, I wouldn’t even think to make a note of the creepiness, because it’s nowhere near my line for not liking horror, but apparently some of the aetheric…issues…are too much for some gentler sensibilities? Honestly I don’t expect that to be a problem for many people. The characters have a lot of bad stuff happening to them, but they retain both agency and their moral sense. The darker scenes never devolve into hopelessness or pointless gore.

Probably my biggest problem was with Tuckerizations, which I hate like I hate serials. They bother me more when I know the author’s social circles (as I do Abra’s), but honestly there’s often a way about them that’s very obtrusive–times when a character gets a both-names reference where it would be more natural to use only given name or only surname in a dialog tag, or when you find out a full name that you have no need to know, or when something is ethnically inexplicably out of place. That’s a fairly subtle thing, though, and most people either don’t find Tuckerizations as problematic as I do or won’t know enough of Abra’s social circle to spot them while reading (or in some cases both). They’re labeled in the endnotes for people who find that fun and interesting, which I know some people really do.

*Seriously, I tried reading Dave Schwartz’s Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib that way, and I had to stop and just read it when it was all done, because I could tell that it was a book I would not hate, and serials: haaaaaate. So at least I know not to do that again.

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