Ned’s Circus of Marvels. By Justin Fisher. HarperCollins. $6.99.
The Bones of the Earth: A Bound Gods Novel. By Rachel Dunne. Harper Voyager. $15.99.
Authors can be forgiven for making dark fantasy a little too dark, or a little too light, for their intended audience. After all, different people’s tolerance for evil, for gore, for fright and fear, is quite different – and knowing where to draw the line when a book is for young readers or adults (and knowing where the line is between young readers and adults) is by no means easy. Still, sometimes an author gets it just right, as Justin Fisher does in Ned’s Circus of Marvels. Self-important, self-proclaimed circus haters will dislike this book intensely, since it takes the whole notion of a circus as a place of magic and marvels as its basis – and then extends it into otherworldly realms. The rationale for this is rather thin, but no thinner than in the usual good-vs.-evil structure of a fantasy novel for ages 10 and up: circuses are not what they seem, and certain circuses are very much not what they seem, consisting of people and almost-people and various not-people-at-all creatures using supernatural abilities to hold back the evil and violence just the other side of a protective Veil. But the Veil is weakening, with increasing rapidity, and all sorts of genuinely scary things are bursting through, and the particular circus of which Ned Waddlesworth becomes a member is at the center of the rapid disintegration of barriers that are supposed to prevent overwhelming darkness from entering the everyday world and laying waste to it. This is not an especially original plot, but Fisher handles it with skill and with enough twists and turns so its formulaic nature is less than obvious. Ned’s story, that of a 13-year-old boy coming of age and learning he is far more than he ever thought he was or could be, is also a standard one; but, again, Fisher clearly knows this and takes considerable pains, most of them successful, to prevent readers from feeling they have read it all before. The humdrum life Ned lives with his father at the book’s start is shattered quickly and forever in the first pages, and Ned’s gradual learning about what is going on and why – and what his role in the events can be and must be – is well-paced and believable (to the extent that dark fantasies can ever be believable). Ned himself is a straightforward reluctant-hero-coming-into-unknown-powers character, but some of the others here are genuinely unusual. There is a ringmaster named Benissimo whose whip has a life of its own; his brother and nemesis, the truly chilling Barbarossa, described as a combination of a pirate and butcher and acting much like both; a demonic ifrit called Mr. Sar-adin whose appearances, whether oily or violent, are equally frightening; a wonderful “Farseer” named Kitty, an elderly blind woman who is a trifle dotty (there are Britishisms everywhere here: the book was originally published in England last year) and whose amusing insistence on wearing Hello Kitty clothing and merchandise makes her enormous powers seem all the stronger; a giant, highly literate and erudite ape named George whose strength is well-nigh unbelievable, who acts as Ned’s protector (not always very effectively), and who speaks often and effusively about bananas; and many more. These characters, as silly and unbelievable as they seem when described, come across surprisingly realistically in their interactions, their hopes, their worries and their battles. The bad guys are less well-delineated – they are mostly the usual horde of evildoers – except for several clowns who will likely give nightmares to any young reader who has ever found real circus clowns a bit shuddery. American readers may be thrown by some of the British slang but will still get the gist of it when, for example, Ned refers to someone as “old tash-face.” And the foundational plot here, in which Ned needs to find out not only who he is (he is not Ned Waddlesworth) but also what his father is (not a harmless, dull tinkerer) and what happened to his mother, gives added depth to a story that is colorful, adventure-packed, fast-paced and often thrilling. In those ways, Ned’s Circus of Marvels, the first book of a planned series, is just like an old-fashioned circus – the kind so hated by the politically correct and self-important, who really deserve to spend some time with Barbarossa and his cronies.
Dark fantasy for adults, such as the Bound Gods sequence by Rachel Dunne, can, of course, be even darker, grittier, gorier and scarier than dark fantasy for younger readers. But there is such a thing as taking matters too far – which is what Dunne does. The second Bound Gods book, The Bones of the Earth, suffers not only from endemic and often over-the-top violence, which In the Shadow of the Gods (Dunne’s debut novel) also had in profusion, but also from the complete lack of any even slightly sympathetic or empathetic character. These are books in which central characters are horribly mutilated by supposed allies (as happens in The Bones of the Earth) when they are not killed outright by supposed allies (as happened in In the Shadow of the Gods and happens again, in a different way, as the sequel opens). These are books in which characters pierce their own eyes so they can symbolically share the darkness they wish to impose on the world. Books in which infants are mercilessly slaughtered. Books in which the gods themselves are evil, sneering, villainous, small characters (despite their huge bodies), with enormous powers and apparently infinite hatred for – well, almost everything, including their own followers as well as other gods. Dunne misses no chance to describe ugliness and cruelty, at one point going on at some length about the manner in which an inquisitive flying creature – far more interesting than most of the humans here – has its wings ripped off. Having opened The Bones of the Earth with a mass slaughter, she makes sure to have a second one, at the gods’ direct behest, later on. Oddly, Dunne has assembled a world that is supposed to be totally unlike ours but that somehow seems to use Latin (or at least vaguely Latin-sounding) roots for almost everything of significance. Thus, the elder, “parent” gods are “father” Patharro and “mother” Metherra (pater and mater plus the respective “o” and “a” endings); a once-helpful, now-dead priest of those gods was Parro (as in padre); and the fallen gods, children of the “parent” ones, are Fratarro (frater, brother) and Sororra (soror, sister; and again one “o” ending and one “a”) – and nasty pieces of work they are, too. It is because of the enmity between Fratarro and Sororra and their never-seen-so-far parent gods that all human twins must be killed at birth because otherwise they will somehow lend strength to Fratarro and Sororra, whose desire, incidentally, is simply to return, overthrow Patharro and Metherra, and plunge the world into everlasting darkness. Just how twins will help is revealed in this second book – one mystery solved – but the world and its inhabitants are so ugly, so unpleasant, so unmotivated by anything but selfishness and violence for their own sake, that it is very hard for readers to take sides or wish for anyone to triumph over anyone else. Everyone here is damaged, deformed, drug-addled, demented or some combination of those. The Bones of the Earth gets a low (+++) rating for adhering closely to so many genre norms and being generally well-paced; but Dunne’s writing is here offered in the service of such ugly, venal, misshapen (physically, emotionally and morally) and inwardly rotten characters that readers who do not want their dark fantasy to be super dark will have difficulty caring about what happens here, when, and to whom or to what.
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