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A Circus of Brass and Bone Paperback – January 15, 2015
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"[A] steampunk fantasy piece told in a period voice. ...It's sparking conversations you'd expect at a dinner party where Katherine Dunn, Cormac McCarthy and Kurt Vonnegut had a little too much wine. It's imaginative modern literature.
"The story itself is a layered mystery set back a bit on an alternate timeline, when the Industrial Revolution was as much about magic as it was steam. It's a dark, supernatural and altogether bizarre examination of the human condition and it remains true to form for a post-apocalyptic novel..."
"What I like best about the book is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. It's nominally steampunk, but the punk-y elements are woven seamlessly into the background. (Look at me! Look at me! I'm wearing a corset! is thankfully nowhere to be found.) Most of the time, Brass and Bone bears more resemblance to Shaun of the Dead than The Difference Engine. And then at times the book gets very serious and punches you in the gut when you weren't looking."
- Margaret Taylor, Steam Trains and Ghosts
"...the world has a texture and a past that appeals even as it appalls ... 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."
- Marissa Lingen, Novel Gazing Redux
About the Author
Abra SW spent several years living abroad in India and Africa before marrying a mad scientist and settling down to live and write in Minneapolis. She specializes in dark science fiction, cheerful horror, and modern fairy tales. Writing as Abra Staffin-Wiebe, she has had short stories appear at publications including Tor.com and Odyssey Magazine. Discover more of her fiction at her website, http://www.aswiebe.com.
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A Circus of Brass and Bone takes place in a post-Civil War America that is more than a bit different from the one we learned about in history class. The main difference is that most of the heavy duty machinery, trains and steamboats and such, are powered by what is called aether, of which there are various kinds, like fire-aether and bone-aether (the latter of which can be used to heal broken bones and other such maladies). And it is this aether that kicks off the plot: in Tennessee, an initially small but long-neglected bubble of fire aether winds up causing a massive chain reaction that wipes out civilization (but not all life) across the United States.
But our main protagonists, the members of The Loyale Traveling Circus and Menagerie, are oblivious to this catastrophe when it happens because they are on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic, on their way to Boston for their next performance. As far as they know, the immediate problem is the unexpected death of their ringmaster Mr. Loyale. While they are trying to figure out who will replace him, their resident snake oil salesman, who doubles as their doctor, reveals that Mr. Loyale was murdered.
And then they arrive in Boston and find out that most of North American civilization has been destroyed. People are starving, and mob violence and other problems have reared their ugly heads. This worries them, because under this new reality such frivolities as clowns and jugglers and performing animals will take a far distant back seat to cold hard pragmatism. Lacey Miller, the circus equestrienne, is particularly concerned because her highly-trained horses are her life. Without them, she feels, she is nothing.
So they immediately set to work on proving to the world, one town at a time, that there is a place for a circus amidst all this bleakness and despair. Of course, there is still the little matter of the murdered ringmaster...
The book kept me interested throughout, and the conclusion was highly satisfying. There is also the possibility of sequels (personally, I would like to see more of Lacey Miller, the prim and proper equestrienne).
There is a vast cast of viewpoint characters, and I think at least one narrator is completely undescribed and unnamed, but I'm not entirely sure about that. It would be easy, with so many moving parts, for it to seem chaotic, but the author manages to exert enough control that the transitions make sense and keep the story going without making me feel entirely confused.
It's tricky to have viewpoint characters reveal secrets about themselves halfway through the book without feeling like you've been lied to, but Ginger and the psychic manage it particularly well, and each narrative voice is distinct enough that it blends together.
One of the things I particularly liked was the slow reveal on the third wave of death that was just kicking off as the book ended. It made you feel like there might be a sequel, or you might have to imagine the sequel yourself. There were also some particularly happy turns of phrase, like, "All killing a Pinkerton gets you is another, angrier Pinkerton." and "Blood coated her arms from her fingertips up past her elbows, as if she wore sanguinary opera gloves."
I did feel like there was some choppiness in the transition between the places the circus stopped, but that is probably an artifact of books that travel in place and time. It's hard to do those without wondering what happened in the last city. I also really did finish the book thinking "and then what"? in the way that I am accustomed to feeling when I am reading a series. Everything was about to go to hell in a handbasket, ala Empire Strikes Back.
Disclaimer: I was given an advance review copy.
Read if: You would love to read about circus freaks, espionage, war elephant golems, intrepid female ship captains, monkeys finding true love, and the authentic smells of large cities.
Skip if: You do not like gory. This book is gory. A guy gets decapitated by a bath faucet and boiled in his tub. A crystal factory full of women and children gets blown up. Monsters.
Also read: The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch. Dead Reckoning, by Mercedes Lackey.