The Circus Infinite by Khan Wong
I’ll start off with a list of things I liked from 2022’s The Circus Infinite, a science fiction novel by Khan Wong:
- Wonderful, occasionally psychedelic visuals
- Interesting world building
- Unusual non-human characters
- “What happens on Persephone-9 stays on Persephone-9”
- A brisk start that balances action with exposition
- The circus!
The Circus Infinite introduces us to Jes, who is on the lam from an evil Institute when the story opens. Jes lays down a false trail at a spaceport, and leaves the planet of Indra for Persephone-9, a moon orbiting the planet of Persephone. The pleasure moon is the Las Vegas of this star system, and Jes hopes he can keep his head down, that he and his extraordinary ability can avoid detection.
Well, that doesn’t happen.
When Jes gets to Persephone-9, he finds his way to a circus that performs inside a casino. Although he plans to tell no one about his unusual ability to manipulate gravity, he uses it almost immediately to save a roustabout who falls after an accident. The circus welcomes him, and he feels safe and included, but in almost no time he’s under the thumb of the vicious crime lord, Dax, who owns the casino, and extorts Jes into working for him, tasks that get worse and more violent each time. Dax is also squeezing the circus. Jes can’t help himself or save his new friends. He can’t see a way out.
Wong fills this star system with a number of interesting races, with unusual abilities, different cultures, and plenty of attitudes about other people, especially hybrids like Jes. The Asuna, who develop crystal halos as they mature, have a strong caste system and are staunch traditionalists. Hydraxians have four arms and are taller than average humans. Rijalans have lavender skin. The Mantodeans look a lot like large praying mantises, and they have a unique relationship with time and space. Asuna and humans both have developed high degrees of empathy, although Asunan empathy is limited to one particular emotion, and Jes’s empathic abilities are nothing out of the ordinary. The Asuna and Rijalans are most open in their disdain of hybrids.
All races have a concept of Emerged Ones, beings whose special abilities transcend the norm. To Jes’s knowledge, however, no one but him can influence and direct gravity fields.
The story runs on two timelines; the present, circus setting, and the backstory of Jes’s childhood and his time in the Institute. There is plenty of mystery about Jes’s ability and the behavior of his terrible parents (which is explained in the end). In the present storyline, Khan creates tension about Dax and his plans, although Jes’s worry about that seems inconsistent. Jes himself is on the run, and sees himself as someone who won’t ask for help. In several instances, though, he blurts out information, almost literally to the first person he sees. For a man trying to hide a secret power, he performs it on stage, although in disguise, and even shows it off in the show of an interstellar pop star.
At times, other character’s reactions seem strange. As a punishment when Jes defies Dax, Dax wounds Bo, Jes’s acrobat boyfriend. Bo’s injury means he can’t perform, just as he had been made the central character of the circus act. He never feels any resentment, fear or caution around Jes. Generally, the characters shake off whatever terrible things happen with ease and get on with work and life. This didn’t seem plausible.
What I loved about the book was the circus itself, the descriptions of the acts. They were wonderful. I had no trouble believing that whatever spats, history and resentments these people might have among themselves, they would pull together to help each other. Wong’s descriptions of parties, especially a quasi-magical Mantodean “orbital” event, are vivid and deliberately strange.
Jes’s empathy is used very well through the book. Jes is asexual, sexual desire makes him uncomfortable—and he’s on a so-called “pleasure moon.” In one sequence he is bombarded by sexual feelings because Dax has sent him to steal something from a sex club. This is handled in a believable and thoughtful way. While I had some problems with the idealized presentation of Bo and Jes, I really enjoyed their relationship, just as I enjoyed Jes’s growing friendship with Esmee, an Asuna singer, and the other performers.
By the end of the book, it’s easy to point out where Jes used bad judgment if he was truly trying to stay undercover. Two plot points are resolved one after the other in a choppy, episodic fashion, and I found it hard to suspend disbelief at that moment. Still, the visuals, the characters and the tension of the book make for a fast, entertaining read. Persephone-9 sounds like a great party-moon, and that’s one great circus.
Sounds like a fun read. I’m interested, despite the warnings.
It IS a fun read!