The Book Itself: Rather plain, but I think it suggests the sometimes dark, mysterious side of circuses, with the dark background with pinpricks of light and the simplistic, somewhat tarnished title. I’m glad it didn’t try to put a mermaid or werewolf on the cover. I think that would have fallen flat.
My Review: When Delilah Marlow visits a famous traveling carnival, Metzger’s Menagerie, she is an ordinary woman in a not-quite-ordinary world. But under the macabre circus black-top, she discovers a fierce, sharp-clawed creature lurking just beneath her human veneer. Captured and put on exhibition, Delilah in her black swan burlesque costume is stripped of her worldly possessions, including her own name, as she’s forced to “perform” in town after town.
But there is breathtaking beauty behind the seamy and grotesque reality of the carnival. Gallagher, her handler, is as kind as he is cryptic and strong. The other “attractions”—mermaids, minotaurs, gryphons and kelpies—are strange, yes, but they share a bond forged by the brutal realities of captivity. And as Delilah struggles for her freedom, and for her fellow menagerie, she’ll discover a strength and a purpose she never knew existed.
Circus stories are having a moment – Night Circus, The Gracelings, and now Menagerie. And I’m not hating that moment. There is an inherent wonder and curiosity associated with circuses that make them ripe for storytelling. Add some magic or some dystopia in there and I am a happy camper.
Menagerie goes the mythical creature route. A popular traveling circus features a cavalcade of creatures labeled “cryptids.” (a quick Wikipedia search reveals that cryptid is the descriptor of beings like the Loch Ness monster and the yeti, and based on the Greek prefix “crypt-”meaning “hidden” or “secret.” KNOWLEDGE!) Treated mainly like side show acts and freak shows, our protagonist, Delilah, thinks the whole charade is wrong, wrong, wrong. And then it turns out she is one.
Exactly what she is is a main mystery of the story. And when her cryptid-identity is revealed, I was left with a whole lot of “Wait, what exactly is she??” She’s not your garden variety creature. No unicorn or siren or werewolf here. And at first it feels like Vincent ran out of creatures and had to dig for some obscure folklore being to place into the story. I’m kind of hoping Delilah meets more of her kind in later books so that her cryptid-half becomes more fleshed out.
Overall, the book is well-written and well-paced (except for the conclusion – more on that later). Some chapters are told from the perspective of other cryptids, which is a nice take on the circus setting. The book is very concerned with the persecution and mistreatment of something people perceive as other. Torture and injustice feature heavily, so if you’re looking for a lighter read, Night Circus is more your thing. This one is heavier. The idea of who is the monster here, the cryptids put on display or the people who put them there is a big theme.
I really, really wish that Delilah’s mother were more fleshed out. Delilah often misses her, and we get a couple of flashbacks, but I never feel like I really know her. Delilah and her main ally’s cryptid identities are obscure and obtuse, and so I found them a little hard to access. And the reaping, a historical event in the past of this current story, is only outlined. Again, we get a few, brief flashbacks, told in snippets of news stories and dictated recordings before every chapter. But I don’t feel like I understand it fully. It was a culling of the cryptids from normal society, and perhaps we don’t need to know much more than that, but it’s briefly mentioned so many times, that I feel like I should get a little bit more from it.
The ending is rushed and a little sloppy. Events happen too rapidly, and this person gets hurt in this way, and someone gets killed and this is the future of our little carnival, but it all feels fast. It felt like a conclusion had to happen, and Vincent felt like some big moves had to be made, so it was all thrown in there, hoping to be impactful. And it fell a little flat for me.
But overall the story is very intriguing. The persecution of other races is well explored (and quite relevant today…), and I care about what happens to these characters. I will be reading the other installments.
My Grade: B