Paris, 1925: To enter the Secret Circus is to enter a world of wonder-a world where women tame magnificent beasts, carousels take you back in time, and trapeze artists float across the sky. But each daring feat has a cost. Bound to her family’s strange and magical circus, it’s the only world Cecile Cabot knows-until she meets a charismatic young painter and embarks on a passionate love affair that could cost her everything.
Virginia, 2005: Lara Barnes is on top of the world-until her fiancé disappears on their wedding day. Desperate, her search for answers unexpectedly leads to her great-grandmother’s journals and sweeps her into the story of a dark circus and a generational curse that has been claiming payment from the women in her family for generations.
Big Thankyou to Red Hook books for the review copy. I can confirm all thoughts and opinions are my own.
The Ladies of the Secret Circus was part fantasy, historical fiction, thriller and murder mystery all tied together in a story that packs an emotional punch. There was plenty to like about this book, but there were parts that fell a little flat for me which made it a like, not love read.
Lara Barnes isn’t sure what to do when her fiancé disappears on the day of her wedding. The only clue is his car left on Wicklow Bend, but with no blood, no prints, no evidence at all the police have little to investigate. But what Lara doesn’t realise is Todd’s disappearance may have more to do with the secret she has kept all of her life, Lara has magic, and the more she investigates Todd’s vanishing act, the more she finds herself delving into her families mysterious and deadly past. Her investigation will take her to the streets of 1920’s Paris filled with culture and a mysterious circus that appears every night and disappears the next morning. But Lara won’t know how her fate is tied to the circus, and the ladies who lived there, until it’s too late.
Like I said, there was plenty to love about this book and the characters were certainly one of the big selling points. Lara is incredibly strong and resilient, not that she will believe it of herself. She had her whole life planned ahead, until the day Todd disappeared and her world turned upside down. But when she is offered the chance to find out what happened to him she jumps at it, never mind the danger or that the offer came from a Prince of Hell. He tells her she must come to the circus and he will explain everything. But when she gets there she learns the disturbing truth behind the circus and the ring master who has control. Her story is heart-breaking in parts, but it isn’t simply hers. What happened to Lara has been happening to her family for centuries, and it will come down to Lara to stop it from happening again.
The story is set, for the most part, in the present as we follow Lara’s story, but we also get flashbacks to the circus told from Cecile Cabot’s diary entries. Cecile and her sister Esmee were the original ‘Ladies of the secret circus’ and their story really hit me in the feels. Cecile’s diary entries were used to fill in the history of the circus and the characters, but also to give us clues that prove absolutely vital to the plot. The diary entries add a whole new depth to the story and add to the twisty and turny feel, keeping you on your toes and getting you to realise not everything is as it seems. They also introduce us to a whole new host of side characters who were all brought to life brilliantly. My favourite of the side characters had to be Ben, the Sheriff who Lara turns too after Todd’s death. The both like each other, and he was just so nice and caring, never overstepping, leaving Lara to mourn Todd, but letting her know he is here when she’s ready for something more.
The setting for this book was both magical and extremely creepy, the more you learn about the circus, the more depraved you realise it is, not just for the ‘ladies’ but for the other acts and creatures that inhabit it. One of the issues I had with this book was that I felt the magic system could have been slightly better explained. We know Lara has magic, and where it comes from, but we have no idea of what she can do. There were some lengthy descriptive parts and I felt a couple of these could have easily been chopped to make room for a deeper insight into the magic, not just Lara’s but the Circus itself. I would also say the ‘fantasy’ aspect of this story was a little more on the nose than I was expecting. I got used to it quickly, but I did expect it to be a little more ‘hints of magic’ than the outright witchcraft we got.
Sayers descriptive writing really brings the circus, in all it’s creepy wonder, to light. It’s easy to get swept into the story and to feel like you’re there along side the audience gasping with delight at all the circus acts. The story really is magical, and a huge part of that is down to the authors writing style. The story is also sped up by the amount of plot twists thrown at us. A few I had a good guess at, but others seemed to come out of nowhere. At around 75% through I had no idea how the story was going to end, which would normally infuriate me to no end, but it didn’t really bother me, the author had written a book with that much scope that there were a multitude of ways it could go and all would make sense to the overall plot.
Overall this was a tragic and magical read that I enjoyed as a whole, I just felt there were a few plot gaps mainly due to the readers lack of understanding of the magic system. This didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment though and I will eagerly be searching out the authors other works. An easy 4 out of 5 stars.