1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea.
But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell's life, but as her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her.
In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But who gets to tell Nell’s story? What happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her? And as she falls in love with Toby, can he detach himself from his past and the terrible secret that binds him to his brother?
Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.
As soon as I read the description for this I couldn’t wait to read it, as I got serious The Greatest Showman vibes and couldn’t wait to see what was in store.
Circus of Wonders is set in a period when Victorian society were obsessed with freaks and the fascinating oddities in our world. I thought MacNeal captured this era so well and I could do clearly picture the circus wagons, the dark and dirty streets of London and the fascinating troupe that made up Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders. Throughout the book, it was like I could see it playing out in a black and white movie and the characters and setting came to life so well because of the writing and narrative.
I really liked how the story didn’t 100% focus on Nell. Of course she is the star and a lot of the story ties to her but we also get to know a lot of the other characters and their secrets. From Jasper and his obsession with becoming the world’s greatest showman, to Toby constantly living in his brother’s shadow, you connect with some of the characters very quickly and want to uncover more about who they are and what they have been through.
The pace of the story is a little slow and at times you just want to get onto the next scene but overall it is done in a way that it paints the bigger picture very well. In the final 30%, the pace suddenly picks up and you realise there is a lot more to the story than just a girl finding her place in the world.
I won’t lie, I sometimes did find that I was reading a literary version of The Greatest Showman and it was hard to fully appreciate this story as its own. I also found the ending didn’t go how I wanted it to but it nearly made the story stronger as MacNeal gave a very realistic but sad closure to the epic story.
If you are a fan of historical fiction that has a touch of magic but also a dark side steeped in betrayal and jealousy, then this is definitely worth a read. The writing is excellent and I will definitely be picking up MacNeal’s debut, The Doll Factory.
A big thank you to NetGalley for letting me read this before it was published.
IN 3 WORDS/PHRASES:
'Circus was life, desire, amplified.'
Toby, I thought he was the strongest and had the most depth.