★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
• The Circus Of The Damned // Cornelia Grey
• Published November 3rd 2014 by Riptide Publishing
Magician Gilbert Blake has spent his entire life conning drunkards in the seediest pubs in the darkest towns, careful to hide the true depths of his power. But when he spends a little too much time in Shadowsea and the infamous slumlord Count Reuben gets wind of his abilities, hiding within the Circus of the Damned may be Gilbert’s only chance at survival.
But there’s more to the Circus than meets the eye. Every time a performer dies, a new one must take his place, or the entire circus suffers the consequences. And while the handsome ringmaster Jesse isn’t one to coerce unwilling performers into giving up their souls to the devil, a recent death in their ranks makes Gilbert exactly what they need.
Yet the longer Gilbert stays with the Circus, the more danger he seems to bring them. Being with Jesse is more than Gilbert could have hoped for, but as Count Reuben’s men continue to search for Gilbert and the Circus loses another performer, they all face running out of time long before the Devil claims his due.
Why did I read this book? Point one, circus. Point two, mentions of a "handsome ringmaster". I may or may not be perpetually in love with that word. Ringmaster. It could hardly be more evocative, and the uniform is beautiful.
But I digress. The Circus Of The Damned, to get this review started, was exactly what I expected – an atmospheric read about one of my favorite settings of all time, with bonus Victorian and light steampunk elements, clouded with the ever-present relationship drama that must surely accompany two men trying to figure themselves (and each other) out. It gave me exactly what I bargained for, and for that, I must praise it.
There are downsides, though. This book doesn’t exactly market itself as the steamiest, most self-indulgent romance in the universe, which I appreciate – it isn’t. It’s so plot-heavy it kind of forgets about its romance, in fact. Gilbert, a lone magician whose concerns are limited to a) money, and b) his pet mouse, messes with the wrong people and bumps against a travelling circus troupe in his attempt to escape the city. He is promptly invited to join them, and because he’s fond of bad life decisions, he agrees. Too bad joining the circus means pledging your soul to a demon and never being able to leave, something he comes to fully understand in the following weeks. There are many ways to work with this kind of plot device, and the author chose to do it in a delightfully evil way – walk as far as you might, hop on a train, hide behind your grandmother’s rocking chair, threaten the ringmaster, do whatever you please... but let yourself fall asleep, and prepare to wake up back in the circus.
And speaking of circus. Gilbert eventually warms up – pun very much intended, for those who’ve read the book – to his new surroundings, and next thing he knows he’s actively invested in the show’s success. Too bad he’s still being followed by murderous mercenaries. Meanwhile, Jesse, the aforementioned handsome ringmaster who may or may not have sold his own soul a few hundred years prior just for the opportunity to run a circus (there’s Dorian Gray... and then there’s this guy), is struggling with his responsibilities, being broody but hot, and having second thoughts. Oh, and then the demon comes back to talk business, because this couldn’t possibly get any worse.
I’m telling you this so I can explain the downside – I didn’t really believe the book’s primary relationship. Gilbert and Jesse are okay together, I suppose, but I don't regret saying I liked their initial comradery better than I liked their established romance. Instead, I found myself cheering for Jesse and his demonic business partner. You would expect me to, of course, for as a woman of wealth and taste, rugged magicians are really not my type - but ultimately, not believing the romance also meant I didn’t believe the ending, which didn’t really work in favor of the book.
Another thing I didn’t particularly approve was the supporting cast – I wish the side characters had been more fleshed out, for I had a hard time telling some of them apart. I knew all about their appearance (the octopus in a top hat slayed me), but I didn’t know a thing about them as people. In the end, that made it hard to care for them.
But back to the bright side of things. I read this in a couple of sittings during my summer holiday (it’s been a while, sorry), and more than the story itself, I can safely say that what truly stuck with me was the worldbuilding. The descriptions, the trains and the circus wagons, the whole magical-slash-steampunk ambience... I felt very much immersed in the story, which is the greatest compliment I can pay a writer.
I’m giving this three stars, with a promise to read more of the author’s work.
Also, nobody asked me to review the publisher but I will do so anyway. The folks at Riptide Publishing call themselves "a boutique purveyor of some of the finest LGBTQ fiction, romance, and erotica", and I was happy to see they do quite a bit for the cause. Their online catalogue is a thing of beauty. You can browse books by heat wave (the amount of sexual content in the books), erotic frequency (how often you should expect to find explicit sex scenes), gender identity (cis, trans, nonbinary) and sexual orientation (hetero/homo/bi/pansexual, and most incredibly, asexual spectrum!) of the characters involved, kinks (everything from dirty talk to guns, they’ve got it written down so you know what to expect), and finally, and most importantly, warnings.
I cannot begin to explain how happy I was when I saw that every book had a small section for warnings – some of the warnings currently in use include drug use, dubious consent, and self-harm. I like this. I like that the people behind Riptide are genuinely respecting their readers and catering to their personal limits. It doesn’t take much to do this, and it makes me – and many others, I imagine – feel extremely comfortable around this publisher and their work. I approve.
NOTE: This book was provided by the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.