Book Review: The Circus Rose

Betsy Cornwell

Rating: 2 out of 5.

published: 16th June 2020
spoilers? not really


From a New York Times best-selling author, a queer retelling of “Snow White and Rose Red” in which teenage twins battle evil religious extremists to save their loves and their circus family. YA fantasy perfect for fans of Leigh Bardugo, Mackenzi Lee, and Laini Taylor.

Twins Rosie and Ivory have grown up at their ringmaster mother’s knee, and after years on the road, they’re returning to Port End, the closest place to home they know. Yet something has changed in the bustling city: fundamentalist flyers paper the walls and preachers fill the squares, warning of shadows falling over the land. The circus prepares a triumphant homecoming show, full of lights and spectacle that could chase away even the darkest shadow. But during Rosie’s tightrope act, disaster strikes.

In this lush, sensuous novel interwoven with themes of social justice and found family, it’s up to Ivory and her magician love—with the help of a dancing bear—to track down an evil priest and save their circus family before it’s too late.

My circus family. I missed them so much, and I mourned them.

And by heaven and earth, I was going to get them back.

Galley provided by publisher

Sometimes you open a book, and you only need a couple of pages to realise it’s not going to be for you. in this case, it was the third chapter that did it for me. Because this book alternates POV by alternative between poetry and prose. And it does not do it well.

The Circus Rose is a retelling of Snow White & Rose Red, a fairytale I am happy to admit I have not a clue of what it’s about. In this world, Snow White and Rose Red are twins, Ivory and Rosie. They work in a circus, run by their mother. Ivory helps backstage, while Rosie has an act as an acrobat, with Bear, who is, as the name suggests, a bear. Ivory and Rosie have different fathers, both of whom wanted to marry their mother, and both of whom were refused by her. But now the circus is back in their town and Ivory and Rosie must contend with their reappearance, as well as the disruption caused by a fundamentalist church.

First, the major issue I found with this book. The poetry/prose dichotomy just doesn’t work for me here. I know good books where the whole thing is told in poetry and it’s done well, but it isn’t here. The poetry is bland and feels more like sentences sliced up oddly rather than being actually poetic. Like, I would argue learn how to write poetry for poetry’s sake before trying to tell a story through it because it’s hard. So it’s understandable, in a way, that it went wrong here. Also, slightly annoyingly, it means that Rosie isn’t nearly so central as Ivory in the narrative, and I kind of wanted them to be more balanced in that respect (especially with the whole storyline surrounding Bear).

I think this also possibly contributed to the book feeling slow-paced. Because not much was happening in the poetry chapters (bar occasionally repeated exactly what was said in the prose chapters, which slowed the story in itself) and the first half of the book seemed to be dedicated to setting up for the second half. Like, the plot didn’t kick in until halfway, and they didn’t start to do anything about it until three quarters in. But what makes it most disappointing is that the last quarter was good. I enjoyed it, but if it was supposed to be at all like a mystery, I’m not buying it because they seemed to know exactly who was behind the disappearances with hardly a thought.

Finally, a little point on the worldbuilding. This isn’t a sequel to anything, as far as I can tell, but it’s set in the same world as another series by the author, and I found that sometimes impacted on the worldbuilding. Like there would be points where I felt the lack of having read those books to understand what was going on. Not often, mind, but enough.

So, in the end, what I’m left with is yet another book that I was disappointed by. It was okay, but it was never really more than that.

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