The Troupe, by Robert Jackson Bennett, follows George Carole, a young piano player who has been trying to find the mysterious Silenus Troupe, a group of vaudeville players whose fourth act nobody seems able to ever remember. George believes the leader of the group, Hieromono (Harry) is the father who abandoned his mother long ago. Adding to their mystery is that they are being pursued by the “Grey Men,” whom George somehow can see or sense better than anyone else.
Turns out, once George does catch up with the troupe, they are even odder than he had thought, with a strangely detached woman who can bend iron, a doctor whose puppets seem a bit too alive, a Persian dancer, and a mute cello player who becomes more of a father to George than Henry does (to say Henry was shocked by the news would be an understatement).
Soon George is on the run with them from the Grey Men (also known as “wolves”) and joins them in their own pursuit of something that may determine the fate of the world. Also in the mix are the personified four seasons and a group of particularly nasty fae. To say more though would be to ruin much of the fun of experiencing The Troupe.
There is a lot more here and to be honest, some might consider it too much. My wife, for example, thought Bennett tried to cram too much into the book and wished he would have been more selective about the fantasy aspects. I actually didn’t mind it though because, while he does toss a lot of ingredients into the recipe, I thought that made some sense considering the premise of the Troupe’s quest.
Bennett also takes some chances with character here as the two major ones — George and Henry — aren’t actually particularly likable for huge chunks of the novel. George is arrogant, selfish, and often oblivious (not all that shocking for his youth, though a bit more than most). Henry is aloof, gruff, and might seem to have some misplaced priorities. These two are somewhat counterpoised by the warmth of Stanley (the cellist) and Frannie.
Meanwhile, Collete the “Persian” allows Bennett to explore youthful infatuation/love and more seriously, racism. And Kingsley, the puppeteer, adds more than a dash of true horror (is there anything more creepy than those damn ventriloquist dummies or too-alive puppets?).
I enjoyed the vaudeville context of the story and actually could have done with more focus on the historical aspect — there is an absolutely brilliant and too short section in second person that takes us through what it was like to perform in vaudeville at the time. But while I would have liked more in that area, I have to say there were some pacing issues here and there and the ending, especially, I thought dragged a bit. In fact, I’d say in general I found the ending (or near-ending) to be the weakest section of the novel.
Despite those few issues, I thoroughly enjoyed The Troupe, reading it in two sittings. Having read Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, I’d have to rank my weird traveling performing troupes books as such:
1) Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti
2) The Troupe
3) The Night Circus
(My memory and nostalgia would actually have me put Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes on top of all of them, but as it’s been some years since I’ve re-read that, I’ll just have to say it’s in the mix.) Any others out there I should read?