Sparkling with lush magic and worldbuilding, The Circus Rose by Betsy Cornwell, a queer retelling of “Snow White and Rose Red,” tells the the story of twins: one who lives her life in the shadows, the other who basks in the spotlight. The setting is a traveling circus, complete with dancing boys, a trained bear, and a bearded lady — who happens to be the ringmaster of the circus and the twins’ mother. The narrative alternates between Ivory, who speaks in prose and is the quieter sister, directing her interest in engineering towards being a stagehand, and Rosie, who speaks in poetry and is the star of the show with her amazing tightrope walk. Although we see both points of view, Ivory’s sections of prose are longer and more detailed, so we see the story primarily from Ivory’s perspective, with Rosie’s sections serving more as brief glimpses into her mind that sometimes connect with the rest of the story and sometimes do not.
Ivory is your typical introvert born into a big, chaotic family, which is something I personally relate to. Throughout the novel, she struggles with trying to reconcile two fundamental truths: she loves her family very much, and she wants to be her own person, pursuing her own interests. She mentions that when she was younger, she spent a year at engineering school, and it was her happy place — quiet, peaceful, full of friends who loved science as much as she did. She didn’t stay, however, because she felt that her mother and sister needed her, so she returned to the circus, and she’s been struggling with that decision ever since.
The novel begins with the circus arriving in Port End, the city where the twins were born years ago. The city welcomes the performers back, eager to buy tickets and enjoy the wonder only such a show can bring. Not everyone is happy to see them, however. A religious extremist group called the Brethren have papered the city walls with fliers decrying magic and one of their preachers has camped himself right outside the circus entrance, proclaiming hellfire on the circus and all who watch it. Ivory’s new lover, a non-binary fairy magician named Tam, is in particular danger from the Brethren. Ivory tells herself to ignore them, that everything will be fine if everyone just keeps going about their business. The circus opens, and everything goes smoothly — until the final act, when Rosie walks her tightrope and a fire breaks out, burning the circus to the ground. No one is killed, but with her mother and Rosie severely injured, it’s up to Ivory to take charge of the circus, something she never in her wildest dreams believed she could do. She needs to step out of the shadows and into the light, or the circus she loves so dearly is truly doomed.
Two things really stood out to me about this book: Ivory and the circus itself. The circus is a perfect fantasy setting, bursting with all kinds of strange magic and interesting people. Its vibrance echoes Stephanie Garber’s Caraval, another book I adore. And Ivory is such a relatable, real character, and as a reader, you’re always right in her head, so you always know exactly what she’s thinking. Other characters like Tam and Ivory’s mother come to life as well. But the one character who felt lackluster to me was Rosie. Throughout the novel, Ivory tells us what Rosie is like and that they have a deep bond, but except for brief glimpses, we don’t really get to see Rosie or their relationship on the page. I personally would have loved more interaction between these two, because I would love to see a good sister relationship come to life.
The villains in this book also left something to be desired. One recent trend I’ve noticed in YA is a villainization of religion, and some of these books offer really interesting critiques of organized religion. However, in The Circus Rose, the Brethren are straight-up bad guys who terrorize anyone they deem too different or abnormal. There is no nuance, nothing thought-provoking — religion is just all bad, and I prefer my villains to be more complex than that.
This book also takes its time, building up the characters, setting, and tension very slowly, with no huge BANG of action until close to the end. I enjoy slower books, especially as a break from most fantasy, which is more fast-paced, and I enjoyed spending that time getting to know Ivory, but for readers who don’t like slower books, they should keep that in mind.
Overall, The Circus Rose is short and sweet, a quick but quite enjoyable read. I loved this book ultimately because I loved Ivory’s story — the story of a girl who wanted nothing more than to be a little introvert, but who is continually pushed out of her comfort zone in order to protect the ones she loves. It’s a story all we introverts can relate to, and a main character we can all love.