cover image Circus of Wonders

Circus of Wonders

Elizabeth Macneal. Atria/Emily Bestler, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-1-982106-79-9

Macneal (The Doll Factory) returns with a colorful historical brimming with action and psychological conflict. Nell, 19, is ridiculed and feared in her village in 1860s England due to the birthmarks covering half her face and dappling her body. When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders pitches its tent in their tiny settlement, Nell’s father drunkenly sells Nell to the megalomaniacal showman for £20. Jasper’s sensitive and bearlike brother Toby, haunted by guilt over an incident in the Crimean War that keeps him under Jasper’s thumb, becomes Nell’s champion and eventually her lover. Jasper, meanwhile, bills Nell as “The Queen of the Moon and Stars,” who, fitted with mechanical wings, flies on ropes above the heads of awestruck spectators. With performances in London, including one for Queen Victoria, Nell’s fame starts to surpass Jasper’s, leading to explosive confrontations between the two. Macneal successfully balances thrilling action sequences with poignant passages, particularly the tender descriptions of Toby and Nell’s relationship. The author brings her fully developed characters to life, highlighting the exploitation of people with visible differences during Victorian times. This makes for a worthy spectacle of its own. Agent: Madeleine Milburn, Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency. (Feb.)