Scottish Reads

Circus of Wonders

1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea.

But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell’s life, but as her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her.

In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But who gets to tell Nell’s story? What happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her? And as she falls in love with Toby, can he detach himself from his past and the terrible secret that binds him to his brother?

Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.

I intended to read this book way back in November. I even took a photo of it at the Christmas market in town, I was so certain that I’d read it before the end of the year. Spoiler: I did not read it before te end of 2021. I did read it this month though and what a treat it was! I gave this 4 stars and I continue to enjoy Elizabeth Macneal just as much as I did before.

This book was told from three different points of view: Nell, Jasper, and Toby. Nell’s father had sold her to the circus which was an utterly heartbreaking story. I really enjoyed her growth in confidence and she started to believe in a future for herself. I absolutely loved her friendship with the other women in the circus. Jasper was the circus master, he was self centred, egotistical, and had a cruel and violent streak. I absolutely hated him. I think I was supposed to hate him. The third narrative came from Toby who was Jasper’s brother who was somewhat of a gentle giant, he was very large but seemed to be mild mannered. Toby was the most layered of the characters as he seemed like a nice guy but was also a secret creeper. This isn’t a spoiler as the signs are there right from the start. I loved getting multiple points of view.

The subject of people being circus acts is horrific and dehumanising, this was never going to be a cheery book. It felt like the subject was handled with respect and compassion towards the real people who were affected by the egos of circus masters. This book did include references to real people who had worked as acts and this just made the book feel so real! Macneal is amazing at writing dark stories that would normally fill me with despair but she left me feeling hopeful.

This book was a very eye opening look into events that happened in the past. They were not glamourised and the book was quite sad. I really did enjoy this book and I’m so annoyed at myself for taking so long to read it!

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