A Circus of Brass and Bone by Abra Staffin-Wiebe
Do you have a morbid sense of humor? A Circus of Brass and Bone is great for that. A troupe of circus performers, on a return trip from a tour in India, arrive in Boston Harbor only to discover the end of the world happened while they were at sea. The book’s cast of misfits have to figure out how to live in a world where people want to know where to buy all the dead bodies, not watch a circus.
What I like best about the book is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s nominally steampunk, but the punk-y elements are woven seamlessly into the background. (Look at me! Look at me! I’m wearing a corset! is thankfully nowhere to be found.) Most of the time, Brass and Bone bears more resemblance to Shaun of the Dead than The Difference Engine. And then at times the book gets very serious and punches you in the gut when you weren’t looking.
There’s a moment near the beginning of the book where it is just beginning to dawn on the circus performers that half the city of Boston is dead. What does the narrative focus on? The skeleton man skulking around trying to steal chocolates from the fat lady. Is there something wrong with me that I was giggling like an idiot? Perhaps.
Staffin-Wiebe writes flawed characters well. Everyone in the circus has something the matter with them so they can’t get a job anywhere else. It’s tempting for a writer to give women and minority characters a free pass just to prove that they’re with the times, but in Brass and Bone, they’re just as human as the rest of the cast.
My biggest complaint is that the book went by too fast. I’m not sure if extra text got left on the editor’s chopping block or it wasn’t written in the first place, but it felt like there was supposed to be more. I think it’s especially important to flesh out the story because there are so many point of view characters. Some of them are there and gone before you ever get to know them.
There was also a moment where Lacey, the circus’s equestrienne, comes riding into New York City on a white horse. I thought white horses didn’t exist, so I Wikipedia’d that, and it turns out they’re just rare. Rare enough that I started writing this paragraph to point out a research blooper, and now I’m wondering whether there’s more to Lacey than meets the eye.
Anyway, the book is funny and it has zombie deer in it. Worth reading.