I’ve struggled with how to write a review for Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine. And that’s primarily because I struggled with reading this novel. Now that it’s over, I’m conflicted on where I stand. I scanned through comments on a few sites where the book has been previously reviewed to see if I was alone and discovered it’s one of those novels that people either love or hate, few seem to have found a comfortable middle and that may be because it’s an uncomfortable work all around. Part of that is due to the fact that it breaks a number of writing rules and, as that saying goes, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you always should.
This is the second recent novel I’ve read that’s set in a magical circus, the other being The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (which I’ve also reviewed HERE). The main difference in the two is that The Night Circus is magic in a realistic world setting, while Mechanique is set in an apocalyptic steampunk type world. Led by Boss, a woman we learn very little about, the Tresaulti Cirque Mechanique travels a war ravaged world, never staying in one place for too long. Boss has abilities, which allow her to bring back the newly deceased or take away life, that are tied to an animated griffin tattoo she has. It’s never explained how she came to have the tattoo or what the magic is that’s tied to it. She appears to be the only one in the world, or at least the only one still alive, who has these abilities. She uses her powers to improve the performers of the circus—exchanging their bones for hollow copper tubes that allow them to fly higher or creating clockwork arms and spines to increase their strength. It causes a class divide in the circus between those “with the bones” and those without; those without are mainly relegated to minor performers, staff and crew. Much of the plot revolves around two things: an internal competition between two of the performers for a set of wings and an external conflict coming from a “government man” who is intrigued by Boss’ abilities.
On the surface, the plot is interesting and the circus performers are a colorful and interesting group of characters. It’s just presented in a way that breaks with a lot of writing rules and that distracts from the story. I’m a character person, I want to know about the people in the story I’m reading and I didn’t get that with this novel, or perhaps I was too distracted by all the things I was finding that professors and writing instructors have told me not to do. It almost feels like Ms. Valentine went out of her way to break as many rules as she could. The novel alternates between, first, third and even second person point of view throughout. The Night Circus also alternated between POV, but stuck with a third person POV with small chapters in second—and that worked for that piece. There are also points were it varies between present and past tense. That happens in different chapters, but when you have two different POVs covering the same time frame and one is in past tense while the other is in present, it feels off. The first person portions that were narration of events didn’t draw me in because in the beginning of the novel you don’t even know who the narrator actually is—a character named Little George. And there are other times where the narration is third person giving more omniscience to the overall chapter, but then little asides are inserted via parentheses that give the impression that it’s still Little George speaking—and he’s giving you information that he in his limited capacity wouldn’t really know.
One of the other problems I have is the characters themselves. With the circus setting and the fact that these people straggle in at various points in the circus’ travels, you expect to get an interesting mix of different types of people. The performers and crew do come from a variety of backgrounds, you just don’t learn too much about those. Again, I’m a character person, the lack of detail for me, may be more than enough for others. Many of the chapters act as character sketches and do little to advance the plot. But even getting glimpses into the characters it felt like they were getting short changed. There wasn’t much that made me like or care about any of the characters. For example, the character of Elena is presented as being controlling and bitchy. There was nothing there in any of the novel that made me care about her, so further in to the novel when her very passionate reasons for why no one should ever again have the coveted wings; I could care less about her argument.
Overall I would describe the novel as a disjointed, non linear series of character sketches tied together by a couple different plot points. It’s an uncomfortable read and the characters are uncomfortable. The character of Panadrome (one of Boss’ first creations) is even described as making circus goers uncomfortable when they think about what he is for too long. There was a point a little over halfway through where the pace picked up and the circus took action when the external plot called for it, which was probably the portion of the novel that I enjoyed the most. It felt like they were finally doing something. Then the action dropped off and I felt as if I were being dragged along again.
Everything in my review is based on my first impression of the novel as I was reading and as I thought about it after I was done. For my tastes, there was too much breaking with writing tradition and not enough character and place detail. The conflicted feeling I mentioned back at the start are thanks to the other reviews I’ve read that refer to the novel with descriptors like “brilliant” or ” ground breaking”. I started second guessing myself and wondering if I was missing her intention. Was her intention to make the reader uncomfortable and to feel out of place because that’s the way those involved in the circus live their lives? Or are people so caught up in the rule breaking that they’ve concluded it must be brilliant simply because of it’s non conformity? I’m curious about how others who’ve read Mechanique have felt after reading it.