Completed 6/2/2023, Reviewed 6/2/2023
I loved this story about a psychically powerful young man coming into his own with the help of a modern circus troupe. The story is equally sweet and dark. It tackles a lot of topics including racial prejudices and ace-phobia. The book has some some flaws, like development of some characters who should have been more prominent, but in the end, I didn’t want it to end. This book is a 2023 Lammy nominee, and would have my vote, although I haven’t read the fifth nominee yet.
Jes is an asexual mixed species escapee from an Institute where he was being studied for having the apparently never before seen ability to manipulate gravity. There he was treated like a lab rat, controlled and tortured for the sake of science. He finds his way onto a moon that one could call a new Las Vegas. Sex, drugs, and debauchery abounds. He finds his way to a moderately successful circus where he gets a job as a grunt. Besides manipulating gravity, he has the usual gift of being able to read other people’s emotions, called sussing. Through sussing, he finds himself able to share his other talent with a few key people. Soon he helps transform the circus into something akin to a super-Cirque du Soliel. Things are going well until the big boss of the casino that houses the circus discovers his talents, discovers the bounty on Jes from the institute, and uses it to manipulate him to do his dirty work. Can Jes break free of this new indentured servitude to live in peace with the community he’s longed for his whole life?
Jes is simply a wonderful character. Through him, we learn what it means to be asexual and accompany him on his first journey of falling in love. I thought this was done brilliantly, giving voice to an orientation about which I know little. We learn tons about him through his sussing gift. Yes, we learn what the other characters are thinking, but in turn, we get a complete picture of how Jes responds to it all, very clearly informing us of who he is. The story is told in two timelines. One is the present where he finds his way to the moon with the circus. The other is a journey through his past, revealing his disinterested parents and the horrors of his treatment at the institute. All this made me so sympathetic to him that, well, yes, I was leaking a few tears at the end of the book.
Racism/Species-ism is a big topic through the book. Jes is a mixed species person who gets poor treatment from both sides of his parentage. One of the reasons he goes to this moon is that it is one of the few places in the nine species alliance where he has more of a chance to acceptance than on either his home planet of that of his mother. The cast of the circus is complete with the representatives of the nine united intelligent species. We learn a little about some of them, a lot about a few others. It makes for great reading and is a great mirror into our own society today.
The world building is interesting. It doesn’t go into detail about all the different worlds visited in this book, but it gives you enough of the main ones that you feel like you’ve been there. Along the same lines, the prose is nice but not overly flowery. It gives you enough description to make you feel cozy or uncomfortable in this universe, but doesn’t rely so much on it that it loses momentum. There’s enough action and believable dialogue to keep the book moving.
I think my biggest disappointment with the book was that there wasn’t enough development of Jes’ love interest, Bo. Through the sussing, we get a decent amount of information about him. In particular, he’s very respectful of Jes’ asexuality. But I felt there was something missing with Bo. It may have just been time. Perhaps if the two had more and longer interactions, I would have felt like I knew him better. Instead we learned a lot about a few of the other circus people who get close to Jes. I’m not knocking that, as there is good character development with the others. I just wish there was more about Bo.
I’ve spent a lot of time describing why this book is so sweet, with Jes’ journey, but it has a lot of dark moments, too. The torture he receives at the institute is pretty horrifying. The fate of some of the other young people there are gruesome as well. Jes’ gravity manipulation not only can make the triplet contortionists float during their act, it can be used as a weapon and as a tool for its own torture and murder. That’s what big boss Dax gets Jes to perform through blackmail and manipulation. It can be hard to read as Jes tries to stay true to his morality but then allows himself to be controlled by Dax.
I give this book five stars out of five. It met my requirement of moving me deeply in some way. It was my affection for Jes that did it for me. Sometimes I think I’m a sucker for a sweet story, like the recent works of TJ Klune (The House in the Cerulean Sea and his next book on my TBR pile, “In the Lives of Puppets”). I like a lot of different types of stories, but I will always have a place in my heart for books like these.