Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine
Here is how you read Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti:
You open the book, and the first paragraph reminds you, a little, of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and then a gold and brass hand sprouts from the pages, grabs you by your collar, and drags you headfirst into the book.
(At least, that’s what it feels like.)
Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti is Genevieve Valentine’s first novel, a dark and dreamlike fantasy set in our own world, in a broken future of endless war, where cities are walled, children are soldiers, and a circus with mechanistic performers is viewed with as much suspicion as wonder.
(It’s tempting to compare Mechanique to The Night Circus. Here are the similarities: both books have circuses, both books have two characters engaged in a competition, both books have beautiful prose. Here are the differences: everything else.)
Valentine uses short chapters and shifting points of view, with an unusual authorial voice, to show us life at the Circus Tresaulti. Each chapter is dotted with parenthetical asides, more than I’ve seen in a novel before.
(This is a tale, Valentine is reminding us. Someone is telling this story years later, after the fact, when it has become legend.)
Boss, the Ringmaster, gave the aerial performers bones of light copper. She gave the dying Jonah clockwork lungs and strongman Ayar a spine and limbs of tempered metal. When Boss gives you bones of metal, she takes something, something she holds close to herself, and the circus performers dread what might happen to them if Boss dies or disappears.
(In a handful of pages, Valentine shows us the awakening of Boss’s magic, as she digs herself out of a bombed-out opera house. It takes her three days. Valentine never does explain why the griffin is the symbol of Boss’s power.)
There are three tales in Mechanique. The first is the story of Bird and Stenos, who are competing for the set of wings, crafted of human bone and metal, that Boss made. The second is the truth of what Boss takes when she grafts the metal to your flesh. And the third is what happens when the circus meets a city ruler, a “government man” with the vision to bring back civilization and the ruthlessness to make it happen.
(The book had resonances of Felix Gilman’s Gears of the City, and Finch by Jeff VanderMeer, but these vibrations were faint, subtle, minor-key, like the soft chime of metal pinions when wings are spread and the person wearing them takes to the sky.)
There is also the story of George, who has been with the circus and with Boss since he was a small boy; of Pandrome, Boss’s first creation; of Alex, who wore the wings first; and of Elena, leader of the aerialists, only slightly younger than Pandrome.
(“It wasn’t Elena’s audition that impressed Boss, though it was the best audition Boss would ever see on the trapeze. It was that after Elena had made the trapeze (out of length of old pipe and two ropes that she hung on a tree) she stood on top of the branch and took off her coat, her boots, her socks, her scavenged sweaters, the belt with the knife strapped to it… In days like those, the first fever of war, Elena had left her knife and her boots behind for better balance on a homemade trapeze. That’s what impressed.”)
When Boss and Bird are detained by the government man, the circus troupe must decide whether to get beyond the government man’s influence or stay and rescue their friends. Loyalties are tested and alliances broken. George struggles with the gift Boss gave him before she was taken. In fact, it’s a little hard to understand why Boss made the decision to keep the circus in town at all, once it had drawn this particular government man’s attention. Her choice, though, means that suddenly characters who had been in the background are called upon to make decisions, choices, and ultimately, sacrifices.
(“Here is how the circus enters the city:
Big George and Big Tom are lashed to the tent truck, their long arms lying along the top of the cab and out in front as a battering ram. The truck takes the main road right into the gates, which groan and cry out with every blow, as the truck backs up and drives forward, four metal fists crashing against the wood.”)
Valentine’s prose is sparse and dreamlike, and characters reveal themselves by actions and silences rather than words. The world with its wars and its magic are alluded to, not delineated in detail. The circus, its tawdry lights and worn tents, its scavenged beer glasses (because glass is precious), its tickets paid in barter because there is no currency, is well-defined, because this is a tale of the circus. Like the audience watching Steno’s and Bird’s acrobatic act, I am silenced by awe.
Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine is a highly stylized, atmospheric work, one that maybe tries a little too hard at times but nevertheless managed to wrap me in its spell through it all.
The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future where war is a near-constant and the cities the circus travels between are often more ruins or refugee camps than proper cities. There is no sense of civilization or cohesive government, though there are references throughout (and one concrete example) of “government men”— those willful enough to take control of a city, or a region, but only for a limited time, only in a limited geography. Then the next one comes along to succeed only until they fail.
Into this wrecked world of cruelty and children soldiers and starvation comes the Circus Tresaulti, a troupe of part-human, part-metal performers (though not all; some remain human, some have not “taken the bones”) whose mechanical workings were given them by the ringmaster, a formidable woman known only as “Boss.” Included in the troupe is Little George, a fully human barker, a young boy whose voice appropriately enough narrates much of the story. Amongst the performers are Elena, the bitterly cruel leader of the trapezists; Ayar the strongman, who “took the bones” and paid the price to save his love; the acrobatic Grimaldi Brothers, who are introduced one by one with the number of men they’ve killed; Bird and Stenos, the paired performers who fight over who gets to wear the beautiful wings Boss crafted years ago, and Alec, the original winged man whose fall occurs even before the events of the book but which haunts the rest of the book:
For them it is not “When Alec fell.”
For anyone who sees it, a moment like that is never in the past; it is always happening, just out of your sight. Behind Elena’s eyes and Little George’s eyes, Alec is always falling . . .
When the acrobats or the aerialists do any trick that frightens the audience into holding its breath, Alec is falling, and their ears fill with the sound of his feathers singing.
Over the course of the novel, via Little George’s narration, as well as a third and sometimes second person voice, we learn how the circus formed and a bit of its history: how Boss made her first mechanical, how Alec fell, how various members joined or auditioned and didn’t join the circus. We also move forward in time as well, as a government man decides Boss’s talent would be of use in creating super-soldiers that will help him maintain and expand his power and thus bring order and civilization back to a dying world. A nice touch is that although George has traveled for years with the circus, he only “wakes” to its reality partway through and so we learn as our narrator learns, sharing his confusion and wonder and frustration.
The story is non-linear, told in bits and snatches, the whole story only slowly revealed and even then rarely fully. It’s an oblique way of telling story, a mix of impressionism and expressionism the way it’s atmospheric and emotional, the way it coalesces into a larger picture via smaller swirling points of story. It’s highly stylized in both structure and language, and for the most part it all works. I’m not sure the second person voice meshes fully, making it feel perhaps a bit too much of a technique rather than an organic part of the tale. And the short chapters, shifting perspectives, aloof voice, and discursive structure tend to distance the characters a bit and also slow the story at the start (personally I didn’t mind that slow pace, but I can see some wondering “when the story will start”). And the swirling in and out and around sometimes means we find our way back to where we’ve been maybe one or two times too many — back, for instance, to Stenos’s and Bird’s conflict over the wings. Mechanique is a short book, under 300 pages, but I’m not sure it couldn’t have lost a few dozen pages or so to cut out a bit of the repetition.
When the atmosphere does eventually resolve into a more traditional (that term is relative here) plot — a rescue attempt of some performers held prisoner — the scene itself is in a visual spectacle in the imagination, but the urgency of it, the “reality” of it feels a bit untethered, a bit contrived. And it begs the question of how hasn’t this happened again and again and again.
My problems with the book, though, were minor in comparison to my enjoyment of it. I said at the start I fell under its spell and it really has that magical sense surrounding it. I’m a sucker for non-linear stories, stylized language, unanswered questions (and there are a lot in here), stories revealed in slants of light rather than granite chunks of exposition, of “and then and then and then.” I don’t mind when atmosphere is more important than plot and when characters flit just out of reach of understanding. Mechanique won’t be to everyone’s taste, but you’ll know within the first few pages whether it’s to yours. It’s definitely worth finding out.
Marion, I’m assuming the parenthetical asides are to make a point about this book and not a new stylistic device for you? : )
This sounds really interesting. It’s an adult book, right?
Kat–thanks for noticing! I enjoyed writing parenthetically for this review, because of the book, but you know what? It’s not easy! Kudos to Valentine for doing it so well in her novel. Yes, this is adult fantasy, not YA.
I will put this on my list. You are stingy with your stars, so this must be good!