While I loved the whimsy and setting in City of Circles its meandering storyline lost me somewhere along the road.
Former clown, but current tightrope walker, Danu, receives her mother’s locket on her deathbed. Unable to open it right away, Danu immerses herself in the circus life and begins a friendship with Morrie, a hunch back who is in love with her. However, the circus soon makes its way to Matryoshka, her birth city, and Danu finds herself in love with the city, its streets, and trying to figure out how to be close to her parents through the city they walked in.
Ready to figure out the secret within the locket, Danu finds an address within the second circle of the city and begins her own journey into the mystery of this stranger and what power she holds over her parents – and thus her family. But this path takes her in clubs, on another high wire, and into the very heart of the city. Will Danu be able to figure out its secrets without losing herself?
Described to me as an Angela Carter-esque book, I was prepared for plenty of winding sentences, magical realism, and events with hazy confusion. But while I got exactly that – I found myself struggling to get through the plot. There was just not enough plot threads to hold me over while I was reading through – to motivate me to keep turning. The mystery of the locket was compelling, but it is something that is not really capitalized until later. Additionally I found myself feeling frustrated with Danu as a character.
The Main Character: Danu
Danu has taken the loss of her parents hard. It has convinced her of the danger love poses and the necessity to guard our heart. I found this aspect of her character extremely easy to relate to – as the fear of love and the power it has is universal. However, this was the main motivation for almost half the book, the engine that kept the tension between Danu and Morrie, as well as Danu’s soul searching going. And for me, it ran out of steam.
Don’t get me wrong, Danu is tender and Richards doesn’t let any of her characters off easily here. We are both enchanted by Morrie and perhaps a little scared. Just like we are both empathetic to Danu’s pain, but also frustrated at her listlessness. Additionally Richards has so many gorgeous descriptions of the world, textures, and even smells. This book is beautifully written and incredibly evocative. The world building gets a clear A from me based on its depth, vividness, and extent to which it takes us into the world.
There is also a subtle cleverness at work here, that Richards creates for us – the conflict between Danu’s necessity to perform, as a member of a circus, and her process of grief. But we witness none of that, if the plot doesn’t help us along, doesn’t compel us to read further. Based on Goodreads, I seem to be part of the minority for not loving the book, but I was seeking some more substance, some more power behind the words. It is a slow burner, a story that does not hasten to unfold before you, and in that way, I embrace it. But it just wasn’t for me, no matter how many Carter echoes I was reading.
That’s not to say it isn’t for someone else though. If you enjoy Circus novels, love whimsical deeply descriptive worlds, and enjoy magical realism, this could be a hit for you. And I hope it is. Because while there are things I definitely struggled with, there are aspects which I genuinely enjoyed.
Disclaimer: I was lent this ARC by a friend.
What’s your favorite circus novel?
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