Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine

I first became interested in this book after viewing and reading the both equally unique cover and premise. After reading the author’s three short stories about the circus that were published earlier (here, here, and here. The latter especially is so beautiful), I was even more excited to get my hands on the book, and when I found a copy in my college bookstore, and twenty-five percent off to boot, I wasted no time in making that book mine. And now here I stand, after having finished reading the book and feeling pretty impressed, and also feeling somewhat uncomfortable about the fact that while I appreciated many aspects of it, I didn’t connect with the novel as well as I did with the short stories

The entire land is a warzone, and has been for maybe hundreds of years, no one knows for certain. Towns are built and obliterated within a week of each other, and all anyone has ever known is war, scarcity, and death. In the midst of all this is the travelling Circus Tresaulti, which provides the only form of known entertainment left in this world. Led by Boss, the powerful and secretive ringmaster, the circus is composed of multiple acts, many of whose performers have been magically altered by Boss. She has exchanged portions or all of their skeletons with copper bones, giving them advanced abilities, with potentially dangerous consequences. It is this magic that, in more ways than one, keeps the circus together and allows them to survive the harshness and brutality of the world they live in.

In my opinion, it is on a technical level that the book shines. The story is written in a very bare-bones style (no pun intended, honestly), and the author describes only what is needed immediately for the scene at hand. The origins of the war, its subsequent history, specific affects on various inhabitants, and hosts of other world-building questions aren’t addressed because those details aren’t necessary. Similarly, chapters are extremely short and the author often makes use of parentheses to include facts or explanations that can’t be derived just from the description of a scene itself. The result is a carefully constructed story that author invites the reader to see how words, sentence, and chapter structure are used extremely precisely to build the story the author intends to tell. In a sense, the story is all bone with little excess fat. On page 99 when Boss muses about all the ruined cities and destroyed buildings, and she thinks, “That’s what happens… if no one cares for the bones of a thing.”

Similarly, Boss’ ability to create and fit the circus performers with magical, copper bones is what makes the circus the entity it is. Because the bones are sturdier and made to accentuate and make easier the performers’ acts, they need not worry as much about wearing out their bodies, not when Boss is there to fix them when they break. Boss herself is the backbone (again, structures!) of the circus, her particular abilities are what created the circus in the first place and is why the circus has continued existing for as long as it has. The circus routinely generates the magic of illusion to entertain and astound their audience; Boss has taken another step forward so that the circus itself is true, magical entity.

Because Boss is so intrinsically tied to the Circus Tresaulti, she is, for me, the most interesting character, largely because she still maintains a sense of her history, which continues to have an impact on her present. I was disappointed that Panadrome, the barely-human musician, whose short story I loved, played such a minor role in the book.  The aerialist Elena’s portions were also intriguing to read about, but otherwise, I felt more of a “take-em-or-leave-em” attitude towards the characters, including Little George, who is the closest thing there is to a narrator.

I guess my main reaction to the book is that I appreciated it rather than enjoyed it, as I would use the word. I read it more to see how the author wrote the story rather than for the story itself, which is what I usually do when I read. Also, it took a while to set up the plot, as the first portion of the book is largely back-story of the members of the circus themselves and what their relationships are to the circus. I already knew a good deal about the circus from the three short stories, so I was less interested in that section as I might have been otherwise. This shouldn’t be a problem for other people if they come to the book without having read the stories.

Also, the plot, a lot of which revolves around two of the performers’ fascination and desire for a pair of magical wings Boss built for someone a long time ago, didn’t quite work for me. I understood why people were enamored with the wings when worn by their previous owner, but I never really got why the performers were desperate to have the wings themselves. Because they signify freedom, maybe? In any case, I wasn’t particularly interested or vested in these two characters’ obsession with them, nor with the various scheming they continually engaged in, all to better position themselves to being able to obtain them.

I almost feel as though I prefer the author’s stories about the circus when they’re written in short format because that way, the starkness of the writing is even more apparent and, as a result, the stories are more concise and pack more of an emotional punch.  This isn’t to say that I think the book isn’t powerful in its own way, but the effect does feel diluted, simply because it’s more difficult to remain engaged with the writing style for multiple pages because of its extreme sparseness. This was somewhat overcome in the latter part when the action picked up and people started acting and reacting to the situation around them and the reminiscences and musings that were frequent in earlier portions of the book were less present here.

I don’t know. Mechanique is a well-written book with an extremely unique story to tell and a different kind of writing t o go along with it. It’s objectively a “good” book in that respect, but there are certain aspects in which it is not a “me” book, and that’s alright. It’s ok to not enjoy everything you read, even when you feel like you should with a certain book and you feel like a twit when you don’t. I also feel like a twit when I enjoy books other people think are stupid. Everyone is different, just like every book, and Mechanique is certainly that.

Published in: on June 11, 2011 at 11:01 PM  Leave a Comment  

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