The Circus Rose
Betsy Cornwell’s inventive but somewhat pat take on the fairytale Snow White and Rose Red recasts the heroines as a pair of performers at their mother’s circus who must battle religious fanaticism when they return to the only town they’ve ever considered home.
Ivory and Rosie have been working for Circus Rose – in which their mother Angela is the ringmaster – since they were small children. By the time they’re teenagers, Rosie has an acrobatic act with a bear named Bear, and Ivory is an observant stagehand – the classic show-off and observer from the womb on. The girls are fraternal twins, the result of their mother’s simultaneous romantic relationships with two different men, both of whom Angela refused to marry; they lived in the same town and were of two different social stations, Ivory’s father a courtier, and Rosie’s a sailor. Angela, a bearded lady who steers Circus Rose with a sure hand, allows inventive Ivory to enroll in the Lamptons’ Girls School of Engineering, and for the first time, she begins to step out of the shadow of her sister and into her own light as a person.
But fate is stalking Circus Rose. They anchor in Port End, Esting, where Ivory and Rosie were conceived and Angela had founded the circus. The girls come in contact with their fathers – and a double proposal means the girls should have themselves one large, happy, polyfidelitous family, but the rest of the staff fears that the two men are trying to lure Angela away from Circus Rose. As Angela settles in to figure out if she can heal the wounds of both sailor Tobias and Lord Braham – and they hers – Ivory begins to fall in love with Tam, the troop’s magician, and fe with her (Tam uses fae/fem pronouns to describe ferself).
But the religious culture of Port End – led by the fundamentalist Brethren – will not let the Circus Rose breathe. A tragic fire strikes on the circus’ opening night, injuring Rosie, putting Angela in a coma and leaving Ivory struggling with her guilt over her role in the accident. Members of the circus – as well as Ivory’s biological father – begin to disappear or voluntarily leave it. Ivory embarks upon a quest to save her family – adopted and biological – from the shape-shifting members of the church and their murderous ways.
The Circus Rose is a captivating page-turner, and for that alone I recommend it. I liked Ivory’s internal point of view, and the way her more realistic, practical character stood in contrast with the dreamy, extremely introverted point of view of Rosie.
Ivory and Rosie’s points of view are told in quick, easy to read but artfully impactful chapters; Ivory, the main narrator, speaks in first person prose, and Rosie in free verse. But because we can’t really get all the way inside Rosie’s head, that narrative choice does put up a bit of a block between her and the reader. But the poems also manage to convey the spare interior quality of her monologues.
The family relationships – between Ivory and the denizens of the circus, and Ivory, Rosie and their mother – are well-built. When the girls’ fathers are introduced, their presence is well-integrated, and their relationship a healthy example of polyamoury. The sort of timeless feeling of the fairytale also works.
There are, however, three bumps that might bemuse readers within the novel’s target age range.
The whole Bear/Rosie relationship is awkward at first because – well, Rosie has a crush on someone whom for all purposes appears to be a giant bear, even though she correctly identifies Bear’s true identity and status before doing so. There is thankfully a twist that saves this plotline, but readers going in blind may feel… concerned.
The second is the blunt obviousness of the religious elements of the plot. There’s no nuance at all in the villains, who come off as flat and uninspired figures of authority, but then again, one might not look for such in fairytales.
The third was that I was disappointed that Ivory’s engineering skills don’t end up playing a heavier role in the story after being established so thoroughly at the beginning of the book. I was expecting that plot thread to lead somewhere interesting for her and it didn’t.
But The Circus Rose manages to have plenty of charming points – ones that bring it in for a recommendation.