(Thanks to NetGalley for a free ARC in exchange for an honest review)
Initial thoughts: Gorgeous writing. A bit confused that Goodreads lists this as Fantasy and Magical Realism as it’s neither. It is literary historical fiction with a dash of mystery and a touch of romance, and the writing itself is magical. Characters are well drawn. Each of the main characters are somewhat morally grey. The only ´good’ character is Nell’s brother. The rest are motivated by selfish desires. The secrets and backstories are intriguing.
Circus of Wonders is a historical fiction novel about a young woman in Victorian England whose father sells her to the circus.
Nell is an outcast in her village. Born with birthmarks covering her body like a series of starry constellations, Nell’s differences are looked on as something to fear. Her father can barely stand to look at her, blaming her for her mother’s death, and the villagers try not to touch her. The only person who accepts her and genuinely seems to love her is her older brother. Nell is afraid her relationship with her brother is about to change though as he’s about to be married. Then along comes Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders! Whereas Nell sees her birthmarks as deformities, Jasper sees them as his chance for fame. Jasper is a master storyteller. He can weave magic from the mundane. It doesn’t take much for him to convince Nell’s father to sell her to him, and with one tiny transaction Nell’s life is no longer her own.
Soon the troupe travels to London where Jasper borrows an extravagant sum from a money lender, the Jackal. Nell becomes Nellie Moon, The Queen of Moon and Stars. She’s the star of the show, the final act, the key to Jasper’s success. But Jasper soon realizes that no one cares about the creator; it is his creation that the crowds wish to see. His jealous rage and the unhealthy attachment to his brother work to unravel all the magic he has so carefully created. But Nell isn’t willing to give up her new life. She has found her place in the world as a flying woman and will do anything to keep succeeding.
Circus of Wonders is about found family, siblings, and healthy versus unhealthy attachments. It’s a book about stories; the stories we think we know, the hidden stories, and the stories we create for ourselves. Ultimately it’s a story of women empowering women and forging a path ahead. A beautiful, feminist read, full of magic.