This was a chance find in the library: I was attracted by the dreamily beautiful cover, which reminded me of The Life of Pi, and by the intriguing summary on the back. Its ethereal strangeness was indicative of the book itself, which turned out to be a pared-back fable set in a fantastical post-apocalyptic future. While it was lovely – and offered me another fictional circus to add to my tally – it also felt somehow truncated, as though it was only just getting underway when the pages came to an end.
Once upon a time there was land, so much land that you could walk for a week and never cross it, but that was back in the time of the great-great-greats. Now the ancient cities have slipped under the seas with their castles and streets and towers, in which strong tides sometimes ring the bells. Now the world is split between the landlockers, who cling to their precious pieces of remaining earth, and the damplings, who live their lives at sea, passing here and there among the archipelagos to trade, carry messages and entertain. The latter is the trade of the Excalibur Circus, whose convoy of boats and coracles bobs from one cluster of islands to the next, offering wonder and subversion. Landlockers and damplings might distrust one another – to the point of arrest or murder if a dampling should dare trespass too far upon an island – but they are all drawn in by the Circus.
Times aren’t as easy for the Excalibur crew as they once were, though. Although they put on a good show, their painted coracles are flaking and it’s always a struggle to produce the dyes and glitter necessary to prolong the illusion of magnificence. Their ringmaster and captain, Jarrow Stirling, must grease their way by paying bribes to the military and must try to predict what every new audience secretly desires from his show – tradition, or daring. To guess wrong might mean a spell in a prison boat, and hunger for his crew. And in these hard days, when a full house is needed for a full stomach, it’s all too often that the Circus run into sparse crowds, thanks to the vast revival boats which cruise around the archipelagos offering their message of salvation and redemption. But Jarrow can comfort himself that things will soon get better. His beautiful young wife Avalon is pregnant and his eldest son Ainsel, the apple of his eye, is going to be married to North, the bear-girl, and will return to the land to renew the Stirling name. But neither North nor Ainsel share his dream of the marriage and, both hiding secrets of their own, yearn to find a way out of the match.
Across the seas, Callanish serves as a gracekeeper, isolated in her tiny house in the midst of the ocean. People bring their loved ones to her for Resting, to be sent down into the sea and mourned, and Callanish has built up a fine reputation. She has taught herself to be noble, sympathetic and self-contained, but there are times when even she begins to feel lonely in her home – her prison – with only the graces for company. Callanish, too, has her secrets and has fled here across the world to ensure that they’re kept, although her mind keeps drifting back to her birth island and her mother and the need to make amends. She is so used to being alone that she’s almost startled when tragedy brings the Excalibur Circus to her door, and she feels a jolt of fellow-feeling for North, the dark-haired bear-girl, whose secrets may offer Callanish an answer to her own.
The best thing about this book is the world-building. Logan has created a society that feels entirely credible, from the World Trees in their sacred groves in the middle of the islands (their roots holding the fragile soil together), to the divisions between damplings and landlockers. But I wanted to know much more about it, and how it came to pass. The customs and history of this world are alluded to only in passing and I wish that the book had been longer, so that we had a chance to really delve into Logan’s creation. A few clues hint at how this environmental change came to pass: corporate greed seems to have been to blame and, in one act, the Circus’s clowns put on an act in which they dress as bankers, acting as scapegoats to rile and enrage their audience. But these insights are rare: much of the book is made up of magical, otherworldly moments that give it a fairy-tale quality. Certain vignettes stick in my head like paintings: a woman in white silk sitting on the porch of a house floating in the middle of the ocean (I imagine it rather like the house in Up), with empty sea to every horizon and empty birdcages bobbing on the swell… or a girl and a bear dancing in the warm glow of a spotlight, with darkness bleeding in around the edges.
It’s beautiful, but in some way the scene-setting takes up so much of the book that the story doesn’t really have time to do very much. One could argue that the whole novel feels as if it’s simply setting up a sequel or series, except that there’s no sign of it being anything other than a standalone. It would be a shame if so, because I don’t feel that I’ve had the chance to get to know the characters and I’d particularly like to dive a little deeper into Logan’s world, because at the moment I’ve only been allowed to bob on the surface. Has anyone else read this book? Would you agree that it leaves a reader wanting more?
This would be one for Pantomime admirers, perhaps, and there are also elements which (for obvious reasons) reminded me very strongly of The Golden City. Those who’ve enjoyed slightly eerie dystopias like that in The Chimes might also find this interesting, although this is a slower, gentler, quieter novel with much less sense of quest and purpose. Do let me know if you decide to give it a go. One thing’s for sure. Logan has quite an imagination and she writes like a dream. It’s just a shame that the various threads here never quite come together into a strong whole.
Just to let you know that the recent one-post-a-day blog rate will be taking a hit from now on, as I’m returning to work after the summer break and have some exciting big projects there which will demand my attention. I may be writing about one of them here, but haven’t decided yet. Obviously I’ll still be blogging frequently, but cut me some slack if you don’t have something new to read every morning 😉 Still, at least I’ve made sure that there’s plenty for you to be getting on with! Enjoy x