23 February, 2021

[Review] The Circus Rose by Betsy Cornwell

Cover image from the goodreads website.

Series or Stand Alone: Stand Alone
Release Date: 16 June, 2020
Publisher: Clarion Books
Genre: Young Adult Fiction/Fantasy and Folk Lore/Fairytell Retelling/LGBTQIA+ Fiction/Romance
ISBN: 9781328639509
Edition: Hardback (available in audiobook, eBook, and paperback)
Rating: ★★
Review Written: 9 September, 2020
Warnings: Magic, Queer relationships, Depictions of Humans being turned into animals
A queer retelling of “Snow White and Rose Red” in which teenage twins battle evil religious extremists to save their loves and their circus family.

Twins Rosie and Ivory have grown up at their ringmaster mother’s knee, and after years on the road, they’re returning to Port End, the closest place to home they know. Yet something has changed in the bustling city: fundamentalist flyers paper the walls and preachers fill the squares, warning of shadows falling over the land. The circus prepares a triumphant homecoming show, full of lights and spectacle that could chase away even the darkest shadow. But during Rosie’s tightrope act, disaster strikes.

In this lush, sensuous novel interwoven with themes of social justice and found family, it’s up to Ivory and her magician love—with the help of a dancing bear—to track down an evil priest and save their circus family before it’s too late.

See more by Betsy Cornwell at her website.
I'll admit I have a slight fondness for the story of Snow White and Rose Red. It's one of the tales I can remember from childhood. My mother had a copy of the tale in a thin little paperback version (though bigger for illustrations), and while there were other stories in the set, that was my favorite. Perhaps it was the idea of a prince being cursed and changing into a bear, maybe it was the fantasy for wanting a twin (which was also a wild childhood fantasy, let me tell you).

Either way, this book invoked a slight sense of nostalgia as I began reading it. The premise is simple, Ivory and Rosie's mother was in love with two men and had sex with both. She managed to conceive twins with different fathers (not impossible, though very rare). Instead of denying one of her children a father, Rosie's mother decided to part ways with both her lovers and instead created a circus. Given that she was a bearded lady, this seems like a pretty decent call. The novel is told between Logical Ivory and more Theatrical Rosie's points of view. Alternating within chapters, it can get a bit overwhelming, though each section is clearly marked and the prose vs poetry of the pair helps differentiate.

Ivory hates the spotlight and chooses to be a stagehand within the circus. She does spend a year off at a female engineering school (which gave me many flashbacks to Gail Carriger's Finishing School series though with less assassin vibes), but leaves so that she can travel with the circus to Faerie. Faerie is the land of the Fey (shocker I know), which has become an independent country since the rise of the current king of Estinger. The real bulk of the story picks up as the circus returns from Faerie, with Tam (a nonbinary Fey) as part of their act. In their time away from Estinger, it seems the Brethren (this world's version of the church) has become more prevalent. Their first performance in Port's End ends in a fiery explosion that leaves many of the performers injured, especially Angela (Ivory and Rosie's mother), and Rosie herself.

Left alone to run the circus, Ivory struggles to step into the light and fill her mother's shoes. Meanwhile, people continue to go missing. Eventually things come to a head as Ivory and Rosie realize exactly who has their mother. With their faithful companion Bear, the girls set off to free the people who have been turned into animals by the Brethren. There's a twist at the ending that I truly enjoyed.

Though I truly enjoyed this novel, the switching between prose and poetry did throw me off slightly. Still, I'd recommend this book for anyone looking for a light, quick read with a lot of LGBTQIA+ content.

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