Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Though it has steampunk flavoring, Mechanique is a hybrid novel, much like the half-human/half-mechanical characters (creatures?) it describes. It’s a New Weird dark fantasy tale set in a dystopian war-torn landscape. The structure of the story and its narrative cogs are very postmodern. The text vacillates between first person narrative (in the voice of Little George, the Circus gofer) and third person points-of-view that range from brief character sketches to omniscient mis en scenes.
The novel tells the story of how the circus came to be. It was created by a former opera singer who discovers she has the power bind living flesh to skeletons made of copper. The process is magic, rather than scientific. She becomes just Boss, a ringmaster and owner of the Circus Tresaulti, which features mechanical aerialists, strongmen and a walking one-man orchestra. The circus travels over a bleak landscape of crumbling cities.
One story-line tells how each of the damaged folk managed to join, and describes the personal politics of the various members, who have all seen horrible things or come from bad backgrounds. Little George’s story has a bildungsroman arc; other characters, such as the prickly aerialist Elena have their own arcs while other circus folk, like the cipher-like Bird, emerge as characters through indirect observation. The other story-line is about a ‘Government Man’—who like Boss has no name save his job title—and his desire to learn Boss’ powers for creating remade people for his own nefarious means.
Valentine employs a variety of techniques, from poetic quasi-fables, to brief anecdotes to full-fledged action sequences. Her world-building is suggestive rather than exhaustive—the Balkanized citystates the circus travels through have a vagueness that is more allegorical than precise. The story is ultimately about finding loyalty and beauty in dark times. Lovers of the work of the Brother Quay or Terry Gilliam, the painter Mark Ryder or the novel Geek Love by Katherine Dunn will find much to admire here.