Adult Historical Fiction

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal Review

Elizabeth Macneal’s The Doll Factory was a sweeping debut of dark historical suspense and mesmerizing settings. Circus of Wonders is a spellbinding follow-up that takes readers from shimmering circus tents into the darkness of Victorian-era England’s obsession with living curiosities. Macneal has a rare gift for balancing light and dark, to oppose the resilience of her heroines with the darkest parts of human nature and society. It’s a wonder to behold.

Nell is different. Her face and body are specked in birthmarks, which in 1866 the people (not only) in her small town believe to be a curse. 

”Girls are rewarded with kingdoms; deformities are given as punishments. The greedy hunchback is cursed with a second hump on the front of his chest; a spiteful sister is punished by being given a second nose.”

Elizabeth Macneal

When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders stops on the outskirts of town, Nell’s father sells her. At first, Nell wants nothing more than to get away. But she finds something unexpected living among the curiosities, kinship among the ‘freaks,’ freedom as she soars above the circus ring admired by the audience, and something like maybe love with Jasper’s gentle brother Toby.

She longs, suddenly, for that blind moment in the air when her mind empties, as she flies, drunk on applause. The burn of a thousand faces turned towards her, a reassurance that she is worth something.

Elizabeth Macneal

But where Toby is mild, Jasper is cruel, led by greed, and ambitious to the point of obsession. And ‘Leopard Girl’ Nell is his ticket to the big league. A ticket he will do anything to claim.

Both Jasper and Toby are haunted by flashbacks of the Crimean War. Jasper was a soldier who delighted in the slaughter, then robbed the dead. Toby was a war photographer whose pictures belied the hardships. A secret binds these two together that keeps Toby beholden to Jasper, even when Jasper unravels, his business decisions going from half-baked to life-threatening. A secret that holds the narrative on edge. Because although Toby is gentle and taken by Nell, there is darkness to him. Nell, of course, is the light. And while Circus of Wonders has multiple narrators, she is clearly the star of the show.

Circus of Wonders delivers Macneal’s patented mix of layered, morally gray characters, shining heroines, relationships so complex you don’t know how the chips will fall, and a setting so rich you can feel the grime clinging to your skin, see the shimmer of circus magic in the air. 

A richly atmospheric historical fiction novel with a cinematic feel.


Book: Circus of Wonders
Published: Picador 
Pages: 384
Publication Date: May 13th, 2021
Stars: 4.5/5

Pan Macmillan South Africa kindly sent me a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion, rating, or the content of my review.

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