Here is how you read Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti:
You open the book, and the first paragraph reminds you, a little, of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and then a gold and brass hand sprouts from the pages, grabs you by your collar, and drags you headfirst into the book.
(At least, that’s what it feels like.)
Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti is Genevieve Valentine’s first novel, a dark and dreamlike fantasy set in our own world, in a broken future of endless war, where cities are walled, children are soldiers, and a circus with mechanistic performers is viewed with as much suspicion as wonder.
(It’s tempting to compare Mechanique to The Night Circus. Here are the similarities: both books have circuses, both books have two characters engaged in a competition, both books have beautiful prose. Here are the differences: everything else.)
Valentine uses short chapters and shifting points of view, with an unusual authorial voice, to show us life at the Circus Tresaulti. Each chapter is dotted with parenthetical asides, more than I’ve seen in a novel before.
(This is a tale, Valentine is reminding us. Someone is telling this story years later, after the fact, when it has become legend.)
Boss, the Ringmaster, gave the aerial performers bones of light copper. She gave the dying Jonah clockwork lungs and strongman Ayar a spine and limbs of tempered metal. When Boss gives you bones of metal, she takes something, something she holds close to herself, and the circus performers dread what might happen to them if Boss dies or disappears.
(In a handful of pages, Valentine shows us the awakening of Boss’s magic, as she digs herself out of a bombed-out opera house. It takes her three days. Valentine never does explain why the griffin is the symbol of Boss’s power.)
There are three tales in Mechanique. The first is the story of Bird and Stenos, who are competing for the set of wings, crafted of human bone and metal, that Boss made. The second is the truth of what Boss takes when she grafts the metal to your flesh. And the third is what happens when the circus meets a city ruler, a “government man” with the vision to bring back civilization and the ruthlessness to make it happen.
(The book had resonances of Felix Gilman’s Gears of the City, and Finch by Jeff VanderMeer, but these vibrations were faint, subtle, minor-key, like the soft chime of metal pinions when wings are spread and the person wearing them takes to the sky.)
There is also the story of George, who has been with the circus and with Boss since he was a small boy; of Pandrome, Boss’s first creation; of Alex, who wore the wings first; and of Elena, leader of the aerialists, only slightly younger than Pandrome.
(“It wasn’t Elena’s audition that impressed Boss, though it was the best audition Boss would ever see on the trapeze. It was that after Elena had made the trapeze (out of length of old pipe and two ropes that she hung on a tree) she stood on top of the branch and took off her coat, her boots, her socks, her scavenged sweaters, the belt with the knife strapped to it… In days like those, the first fever of war, Elena had left her knife and her boots behind for better balance on a homemade trapeze. That’s what impressed.”)
When Boss and Bird are detained by the government man, the circus troupe must decide whether to get beyond the government man’s influence or stay and rescue their friends. Loyalties are tested and alliances broken. George struggles with the gift Boss gave him before she was taken. In fact, it’s a little hard to understand why Boss made the decision to keep the circus in town at all, once it had drawn this particular government man’s attention. Her choice, though, means that suddenly characters who had been in the background are called upon to make decisions, choices, and ultimately, sacrifices.
(“Here is how the circus enters the city:
Big George and Big Tom are lashed to the tent truck, their long arms lying along the top of the cab and out in front as a battering ram. The truck takes the main road right into the gates, which groan and cry out with every blow, as the truck backs up and drives forward, four metal fists crashing against the wood.”)
Valentine’s prose is sparse and dreamlike, and characters reveal themselves by actions and silences rather than words. The world with its wars and its magic are alluded to, not delineated in detail. The circus, its tawdry lights and worn tents, its scavenged beer glasses (because glass is precious), its tickets paid in barter because there is no currency, is well-defined, because this is a tale of the circus. Like the audience watching Steno’s and Bird’s acrobatic act, I am silenced by awe.