Review – Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti

So I’ve been meaning to write this review for about 2 weeks now. As soon as I finished Mechanique I knew I wanted to write about it, but I haven’t had the time. I teach English as a Foreign Language at a university in South Korea and the end of semester always means two weeks of exhausting work. I mostly teach English Conversation so final exams mean I have to sit down and talk to students. It doesn’t sound so bad but going over the same questions and hearing the same sorts of answers (often with the same sorts of mistakes) over and over again for hours a day over the course of a week is surprisingly draining. There is also the fact that when you’re marking someone’s conversation skill and language ability you really have to give them your full and undivided attention. If you let your mind wander you risk being unfair in your marking. The week after exams is always long too as I usually have a backlog of final tests and homework assignments to mark before I can compile final grades. The payoff for those two weeks of mental exhaustion though are a generally easy job and two months of paid vacation per semester, so I’m not complaining.

This means I’m going to have lots of time for writing and blogging, assuming I don’t let the joy of freedom devolve into long hours of TV, computer games and naps. That’s always a danger. Anyway, expect to see more action here on Looking For a Rabbit Hole (still pondering a name change on that front…). To start us off I should get to that review, yes?

To be clear, I am reviewing the audiobook of Mechanique, which means I’m really reviewing the work of two different storytellers: the book’s author, Genevieve Valentine [ her blog here] [her twitter here], and the audiobook’s narrator, Scott Aiello [other books narrated by Scott here]. Both of these fine artists did a great job in making Mechanique an enjoyable audiobook experience. Early on in my listening I realized that, as someone aiming sqaurely at the goal becoming a proffessional writer, I was very jealous of the writing here. Mechanique is not your standard novel. The narrative is non-linear, effortlessly jumping back and forth through time, and uses multiple points of view; many of the Circus Tresaulti’s performers take their turn in the spotlight.

The lion’s share of the novel comes to us through the eyes of Little George, the circus’ barker, general errand boy, and assistant to the ringmaster, Boss. Little George is not one of the performers but neither is he one of the nameless crew who come and go. Like the reader, or listener, he knows much more of the circus’ inner workings than a complete outsider, but there are mysteries he has yet to be initiated in. George is our primary vehicle through the story, but he does often step aside to allow us to view the circus though other eyes.

The cast of characters is fascinating. They’ve all been touched by the seemingly endless war that has ravaged the world. Most have known something of the soldier’s life before they became entertainers. The war has shaped all of the performers and Boss has reshaped them with gears and hollow copper bones, glass eyes and one terrible, awesome set of wings. As a group the performers of the the Circus Tresaulti are bound together by the will of Boss, by the changes they’ve undergone to join the circus and by the need to band together to survive in a world torn apart by constant war. They are a fractured group though. Cliques, ego and competing obsessions can make Tresaulti a hard, and sometimes dangerous world to find one’s place in.

The jumping through time and shifting point of view left me feeling that listening to Mechanique was like watching a painter create a beautiful work of art while you watched. As the artist works you see detail emerging, first a person there, now a tree in the corner, now something orange and gold – you’re not quite sure what yet as she’s moved away to paint another character. Eventually more and more of the painting takes shape and it all comes into focus together. There are, I’m sure, many who might not enjoy this style. Indeed I’ve seen at least one review that compalined of it. I loved it. “Seeing” the Circus Tresaulti take shape, seeing the characters all come into focus is as enjoyable as watching a master painter create a work of art before your eyes would be. For me, that’s very enjoyable indeed. This should not be taken to mean that there is no story or plot here. There is. The circus faces dangers both external and internal which threaten to destroy it. For my money though, the best part of this novel is the exploration of the circus and its performers.

Though I can understand complaints about the books style I’ve also seen a review that complains of flat, uninteresting characters and that is something I couldn’t understand. It is true that with such a large cast some named characters are little more than window dressing. Big George and his partner Tom, the living trapezes, and most of the Garibaldi brothers are examples of this. The main cast though are fascinating. The conflict between Stenos and Bird, who are partnered in an act that stuns the circus’ audience into silence every night as their hate-yet-need for each other goes on display, drives large parts of the story. Boss is powerful and mysterious, keeping the circus under control through force of will alone, but also imperfect and, at times, vulnerable. Perhaps the best character is Elena, the shrewish leader of the aerialists. She does not really grow or change from her point of view, but as the reader or listener comes to better understand her she becomes perhaps the most interesting character of them all.

I suspect the novel is enhanced as an audio experience. Scott Aiello embodies the characters with their own voices and emotions and when a chapter change brings a new point of view you pick up on which character is taking over the storytelling without any need to be told. I think he does best with Little George, but this shouldn’t be surprising as he has so much more time to be Little George and really get comfortable in the character. I also have to call out special congratulations on his voicing of a minor character, Panindrone, who I think may be the character who is most enhanced by the audiobook treatment.

Complaints? I really don’t have any myself. I loved this book and I loved the audio. As noted I’m sure the non-linear, multiple points of view might be a turn off for some. I don’t want to spoil the book in any way but I would also caution that if you’re the type of person who wants all your mysteries explained by the end or who prefers hard SF then this probably isn’t for you either. For everyone else I say: go get yourself a copy. I highly recommend the audiobook, but I’m sure the written version is enjoyable too. Given how gorgeous the cover is this is a book I’d like to purchase a physical copy of sooner or later to read again. I’m mostly sticking to ebooks and audiobooks these days for a lot of reasons, chief among them being I don’t want to have to pay shipping costs to S. Korea, but a book this good and this gorgeous deserves a place on my bookshelf.

I’ll be keeping an eye out for more from Genevieve Valentine, she is now an author I intend to follow pretty closely. I’ve also taken a look at the other audible audiobooks narrated by Scott Aiello and when I discovered that he’d narrated a book called Emperor Mollusk Versus the Sinister Brain, well, I knew what I’d be using my next audible credit on.

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