Thursday, 28 July 2011

Book Review | Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine

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Come inside and take a seat; the show is about to begin...

Outside any city still standing, the Mechanical Circus Tresaulti sets up its tents. Crowds pack the benches to gawk at the brass-and-copper troupe and their impossible feats: Ayar the Strong Man, the acrobatic Grimaldi Brothers, fearless Elena and her aerialists who perform on living trapezes. War is everywhere, but while the Circus is performing, the world is magic. That magic is no accident: Boss builds her circus from the bones out, molding a mechanical company that will survive the unforgiving landscape. But even a careful ringmaster can make mistakes. Two of Tresaulti's performers are entangled in a secret standoff that threatens to tear the circus apart just as the war lands on their doorstep. Now the Circus must fight a war on two fronts: one from the outside, and a more dangerous one from within.


There are fantasy novels I love, space operas I adore, and horror stories that will haunt me till my dying day; there are tomes of magic and myth and mystery I don't expect I'll ever forget. Long story short, I'm an undiscriminating reader of speculative fiction -- and that's a fact I take heart in.


(You must have know there was a but coming...)

Among the many, one sub-genre - though perhaps I should rephrase, for I do not presume to have read of each and every one - one sub-genre among the many I've experience of, then, has left me cold on every occasion I've spent time with a book of its oeuvre. Perhaps I've just been reading the wrong books... perhaps it's as simple as that. Yet I began to suspect that I'd finally met my match: that steampunk and I were simply, sadly, never going to get on.

It wasn't that the idea of steampunk didn't do it for me, either. Quite the contrary: the notion of worlds and people remade according to anachronistic laws and technologies delighted me. The thought of pitching the irreversible crawl of progress via industry and enterprise in another direction entirely appealed on a level precious few premises tend to. That the idea of steampunk excites the reader in me I am not at all ashamed to admit, but in practice... alas. Till now, all the steampunk I'd given the time of day to felt more about the tech and the time than the tale or its texture; all cogs and wheels and divots where there should have been characters to care about, arcs to invest my interest in.

Then I read Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine, and all that changed.

The company has been travelling for what feels like forever. Perhaps it has been -- after all, "the circus makes an enemy of time." Led on a lazy circuit around a world of "children raised up on roots and scrounge-meat" where some far-distant day there may again be merit in a school - a vast continent of countless governments at war with one another and themselves - if the Circus Tresaulti and its machine/man/animals acts are not welcomed in every place they pitch their tents, then at least they are free to come and go with little outside interference, for "a circus always finds a home; everyone wants a show."

And theirs is a show like none other, such that the very "life of a city flickers and trembles when they are near." The circus' enigmatic ringmaster Boss - an ageless woman whose ability to breathe new life into tired old acts by way of leftover metals is both a gift and a curse - has made sure of that, embellishing those waifs and strays who come to Tresaulti to escape the forever war raging around them with such parts and roles as to make new people of them. "Their real names don't matter; no one in the circus is real any more," so they are Bird and Stenos and Elena and Ayar; the Grimaldi Brothers, Alto and Altissimo; the aerialists Ming and Penna and Ying; Big Tom and Big George, the living trapezes; and Little George - just George at the last - who tells the tale.

That is, Little George tells the tale insofar as any one character does. As it happens, Mechanique is a tale told in the first and the second and the third person, in tenses past, present and future. Stylistically, and so narratively, Genevieve Valentine's astonishing debut can be a challenging thing -- hard to get a handle on, especially at the outset, when spread all around the reader there is a staggering array of such sights and sounds as to practically overmaster one's imagination. But through it all, Little George is our foothold; chronological and largely uncomplicated, his is certainly the most traditional path of narrative through the events of Mechanique, though I do not know if it is the most powerful, for those fleeting glimpses we are allowed of Bird and Boss are haunting... breathtaking... beautiful in a way very few voices could capture.

In any event Valentine seems to have little interest in tradition, in the art of storytelling as we have been given - perhaps mistakenly - to understand it. She comes at things from a million angles, with an attitude wholeheartedly her own, and at a pace I expect some readers may take issue with. Mechanique will be their loss. It is true that Valentine takes her sweet time setting the scene and arranging the stage for the entertainments to come, but one's introductions to all and sundry in the company are a redoubtable delight, and the Circus Tresaulti a thing of blistering, black-blooded wonder.

Perhaps there's something to the fact that the Circus Tresaulti began its whistle-stop tour in several short stories published in Fantasy Magazine and Beneath Ceaseless Skies (all of which you can read for free here). Assuredly the sense of the episodic carries through the first half of Mechanique and in some senses beyond, and so too does the self-containedness of many of the eighty-odd chapters speak to the abbreviated origins of this far grander narrative, but though Valentine communicates her debut's essential character in an unusual way, her weaving together of all these assorted strands is a supermassive success; her carefully-wrought words and workings so fine and precise as to guarantee it is not merely some happy accident that Mechanique works so very well.

Whether Mechanique is a collection of loosely connected episodes in the life and times of a travelling circus and its oddment of performers, or a single story with a fistful of distinct threads enmeshed together, I would argue it matters little. And there can be no disputing that the ringside seats Valentine arranges for us around this unforgettable parade of "clockwork coquettes" and strongman machines are a marvel. We are so close to the action as to scent the mingled stink of sweat and sawdust and sweet treats in the air; to hear "the sound of feathers singing" as every bone in the wings sewn to the spine of Alec the flying man arrives at an impossible harmony; to gape up at and around and through every last incredible act, as if we were ourselves a part of them.

Truly, madly, deeply, readers: this first full-length Tale of the Circus Tresaulti moved me immeasurably. Here's to many more where it came from -- which is to say, from the mind of one of the most promising new voices in all genre fiction. Not since discovering the work of Catherynne M. Valente have I been so excited about a second novel; that for her first Genevieve Valentine has conjured such a masterpiece of measure and imagination as this - the performance of a lifetime! - speaks volumes as to why I may finally have fallen for steampunk.


Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti
by Genevieve Valentine

UK Publication: May 2011, Prime Books

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1 comment:

  1. I wondered about this book Great review, I shall have to pick it up.
    The thing with Steampunk floundered me for a while as well. I read the lists to include works such as Peake's Gormenghast novels - I loved them, but to me they're not Steampunk. I read The Difference Engine, enjoyed it, but again, to me just setting something in Vic doesn't make it Streampunk. There's the steam, not the punk. And now a lot of what comes out Steampunk is suspicious because some of these are folks writing to the newly minted conventions of "how to write Steampunk". Disingenuous? Sometimes. For a long time the best example of what I'd read that seemed to have the elements I considered SP were China Mieville's Perdido Street Station and The Scar. And the great thing about them is they are not content with just being written as SP. They are huge and well worth the experience if you've not (I'm new here, so if You've talked about them my apologies).
    Also I'd have to recommend Tim Powers Annubis Gates and K.W. Jeter's Infernal Devices, which lack some of the "punk" but were the guys who jokingly coined the term when trying to describe their work in the era of Cyberpunk (again, if you didn't already know).