Encompassing the viewpoints of youth and relative maturity, in order to shift between bafflement and occasional epiphanies for both the narrator and the even more clueless reader, while doling out the most crucial back story only when it really counts: that’s what Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique shares with [China Miéville’s] Embassytown – along with a willingness to discard the completely rational, as needed. Though her book is set in an earthly future brought down from its height of progress by a series of unspecified wars, this ‘‘Tale of the Circus Tresaulti’’ doesn’t resemble steampunk so much as Gothic in the tradition of Poe and Mary Shelley, where a lone inventor’s creations mingle science with the occult.
Instead of the mad scientist aloof in his lab, Valentine gives us a circus owner and mistress of ceremonies known simply as Boss. Here’s how we first see her: ‘‘A drum roll announces the beginning of the show, and the tent flaps open up for the entrance of an enormous woman in a black-sequined coat. Her curly dark hair springs out over her shoulders, and she wears red lipstick that seems unnaturally bright when she stands under the pink paper lantern.’’ Boss gestures and calls out in a voice that somehow ‘‘change[s] the air,’’ and although the reader stands apart from the beery, quietening crowd, a genuine spell has been cast.
Mechanique is mostly narrated, from those alternating temporal perspectives, by the urchin and young woman known as Little George. While she grew up with the circus, and soon mocks both the paying customers and the dancing girls who come and go from town to town, the brash child hasn’t penetrated the inner workings of a truly extraordinary enterprise. She knows most of the permanent performers have some metal in them, from the aerialists with their ‘‘skeletons of hollow pipe’’ to gigantic Big George (who, along with Big Tom, resemble parts of the stage set that suddenly come to life) and the even more curious creature billed as the Human Orchestra. But this underage carnival barker has no idea who they once had been, these ‘‘curiosities’’ and ‘‘living engines,’’ or just how much they’ve changed.
The older version teases us with hints of great matters while she mocks her foolish youth: brief, tantalizing lines, like ‘‘How was I to know he had seen the wings?’’ This refers to one absent curiosity, a Winged Man who fell when she was very young. Among the book’s gradual revelations about its characters, his must wait until near the end – when she and we have learned enough to feel its full impact.
The ‘‘rubes’’ who pay for a night’s entertainment will never really know what they’ve encountered; a melancholy parenthesis declares, ‘‘Most people don’t live long enough to see the circus twice. These are ragged days.’’ Nonetheless, the Circus Tresaulti comes under scrutiny from an outsider, some anonymous ‘‘government man’’ whose lurking presence adds another level of tension. Is he tracking criminals on the lam, or after something more sinister?
Valentine ignores many tropes of circus horror and classic dark carnival tales. There are no clowns here (those serial killers with painted faces and lost souls), no mismatched lovers on an operatic rush to doom. Even the most freakish players retain some humanity, whether or not we see it straight away. Beginning as fractured narrative, offering only hints and glimpses of the truth, Mechanique comes together as the story of a strange collective which can’t remain entirely untouched by the outer world, though it seems to move in its own private sphere. While they’re neither a band of demigods nor a group of superheroes in haphazard alliance, these retooled traveling players have a collective power not even they quite realize. Misfits, desperados, ordinary schmoes – whatever they were has undergone a metamorphosis. Shabby as it may seem, the Circus Tresaulti can exude the aura of timeless myth and legend.
A final chapter, which serves as a kind of postscript, includes this line: ‘‘It’s as if a sharp light has been turned on over the circus that can never go out, and now all their shadows are different.’’ Whatever we may know about them now, this is not the flat glare of the mundane, diminishing whatever it touches. Beyond every revelation, setback and dramatic moment, the wonder remains.