This week on Down the Stacks, we’re taking a foray into Steampunk territory with a bit of post-apocalyptic flavor. Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine also breaks away from the traditional bounds of narrative time, producing a unique and sometime frustrating experience. Read on as I try to sort out the puzzle pieces.
As the sub-title indicates, Mechanique deals with the Circus Tresaulti, an unusual troupe full of clockwork cyborgs and augmented humans. The circus travels through a world that has been utterly ravaged by war and is having some problems rebuilding itself; most cities are bombed-out shells of their former selves, soldiering is one of the few forms of steady employment available, and attempts to reestablish governments rarely last long. Circus Tresaulti provides a temporary escape from the horrors of daily life and a seemingly stable alternative to those tired of fighting for everything, but it moves so frequently and ranges so far that few get the chance to see the show twice in their lifetimes. Those who join the circus typically do so only on a temporary basis as crew, jugglers, or dancing girls, and those who wish to stay longer usually must submit to the Boss’s augmentations, which often take the form of a skeleton made of hollow copper tubes.
Although the Circus Tresaulti has just shy of two dozen permanent members, the books focuses on just five: the ringleader Boss, a woman with a commanding presence and who keeps the secret of her augmentations close to the chest; Elena, the cold-hearted leader of the trapeze artists; Stenos and Bird, an acrobot duo with no love for one another, and Little George, the circus’s barker (and our sometimes-narrator) who has been with the circus since childhood and does not yet have any true augments. Another headliner character, Alec the Winged Man, appears only in flashbacks, but his wings and memory persist throughout the story as one of the central conflicts: both Stenos and Bird joined the circus for the express purpose of having Alec’s copper wings grafted onto their back. The story’s other conflict involves a government man taking an interest in Boss and her ability to augment people.
Mechanique is presented in disjointed order and with constant changes in narrative perspective. Up until the final few chapters, Valentine leaps around at random in time, separating the chapters that continue “the present” with vignettes of how the various characters joined the circus or other events such as Alec’s death and when Bird receives her copper bones or some failed auditions. These vignettes aren’t presented in chronological order relative to each other, and are sometimes repeated from other perspectives or cut short to reserve some revelation until later. There’s also little consistency in narrator: sometimes a scene is told in first-person by Little George, sometimes it’s third-person, and and yet other times (often introduced with a line like “This is what happens when…”) the narration is in second-person, as if the reader has become the character that chapter is focused on. It can be rather disorienting at first, but Valentine at least does a fair job of repeating key phrases to clue you into what a chapter is about and roughly where it sits on the Circus Tresaulti’s timeline, and by the end the big questions receive enough of an answer to let the reader fill in the gaps for themselves.
One quirk of Valentine’s writing style in this book is placing whole passages - sometimes half a page’s worth or more - inside parentheses. These parenthetical passages have the tone of expository asides, but their sheer length and importance to the rest of the story makes the use of the parenthesis marks seem unnecessary and pretentious.
All the oddities of Mechanique’s written style gives the story a poetic or stream-of-consciousness feel. While that annoyed me at times, on reflection I think it fits well with the tone and setting of the story and with Little George’s character development. The circus is traveling through a world so torn apart by war that the natural motion of time can seem meaningless, and George has to go through a kind of awakening to find his proper place in the Circus, moving from a simple barker with no solid goals or direction to someone capable of taking charge of the Circus’s many strong and often disagreeable personalities when Boss isn’t around.
I’m not sure if Mechanique is meant to be the first part of a series or not. The sub-title and the fact that not all of the plot threads are tied up perfectly neat by the end leaves open the possibility of more books. On the other hand, the story really is a tale of the Circus Tresaulti when all is said and done, just a sampling of its long yet ultimately monotonous history, and the ending doesn’t leave any big questions to indicate anything special in the Circus’s future.
Would I recommend Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti? Well, it’s much more “artsy” than I like but there’s nothing mechanically wrong with it. The story isn’t hard to puzzle out, although there are times when I mentally screamed at the book to get back to the main plot already. The characters are a bit flat and don’t interact with each other enough to reveal hidden depths, although some of the backstories make a few of the side characters sympathetic. Stenos and Bird are both boring in their single-minded focus on earning the wings; Ayar the strongman and his partner Jonah show some real character in their rare moments of taking part in the conflicts, and the troubled past of the so-called Grimauldi Brothers could make an interesting short story all its own.In the end, I can’t recommend Mechanique too strongly. It’s not my preferred genre, and there’s not enough in it to redeem it.