There are books that blend genres, like a steampunk romance. And then there are books which take all the toys in the genre box and throw them onto the ground, assembling a brilliantly glittering collage from the shards.
Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique, a steampunk/post-apocalyptic/magical-realist/paranormal adventure, is one of those rare books that will transform your understanding of genre. It's a genuinely literary book that uses the elements of genre to tell the truth about people. Fittingly for a book about acrobats and tumblers, this book both soars and confounds your expectations.
In Mechanique, the Mechanical Circus Tresaulti travels through a shattered world, where civilization has collapsed, and the world has grown old. The circus is both mechanical and magical: The main performers in the circus are all post-humans who have been transformed and remade by the circus' ringmaster, who's known only as Boss. They are enhanced with mechanical parts, or given new legs — or, in the case of the trapeze girls, their bones have been removed and replaced with lightweight hollow pipes. Not surprisingly, this transformation comes with a steep cost, and these performers are both hauntingly gorgeous and scarily grotesque.
You'll be reminded of the "remade" people in China Miéville's Bas-Lag novels — although in the case of Valentine's remade circus performers, they (mostly) chose this.
Once Boss has changed your body, you're no longer the person you were — you get a new name, of Boss' choosing, and you are bonded to the circus, via some kind of magical link. And often with the newfound power comes a new fragility.
In Valentine's novel, two main plot threads converge: There is a ruthless government man, who covets Boss' power to transform people, which he thinks could make him a posthuman superman and help him create an unstoppable army. And meanwhile, two circus performers, an aerialist named Bird and a strong man named Stenos, both covet a pair of beautiful musical wings that used to belong to a gorgeous flying man named Alec.
Here's how Valentine describes the wings:
They are almost the same as any other bundle of pipes and scrap in her workshop. Half a dozen performers have joined the circus since; none of them has given the wings a second glance.
But if you are single-minded as Bird, or as hungry for glory as Stenos, then you see them.
If you are like them, then when you enter the workshop there is no pile of scrap, no steel table wiped almost clean of blood. There is no terrifying rack of drills and ratchets, no coils of cord to lash your bones back in place. There is no Boss to inflit her will on you, to build you up and wake you with a new name and a body she knows will look good at the center of the stage.
For you, the world narrows to a single point as you step inside the workshop. (This is what happens when you take a step; you are moving closer to something you want.)
For you, the workshop is only the roof that has been pitched over your waiting wings.
The only trouble is, none of the novel's schemers understand what they're craving. The government man doesn't understand the forces he's messing with, and the nature of the power he wishes to possess — and the magic that powers the circus comes from a kind of benign anarchy that is antithetical to the government man's desire for total order. Meanwhile, Bird and Stenos covet the wings without realizing the curse that comes with them — the curse that made their previous owner choose to fall instead of flying.
The choice — to fly or to fall — is at the center of Mechanique, in which the performers only remain aloft because of an effort of will, not to mention the trust of their colleagues. Two performers have fallen before the novel begins, and both falls frame the narrative — one due to a failure of will, the other due to a failure of trust.
In a world where endless wars have torn the cities and countryside apart, and many of the circus performers are former soldiers and refugees, putting on a brazen show, and flying in the apex of a big tent for everyone to see, requires a certain amount of audacity.
And the secret at the heart of Mechanique is that creating beauty and performance in the middle of a horribly scarred world requires cruelty. The cruelty of the circus is almost as great as its beauty. And there lies the dichotomy between loveliness and grotesquerie of Boss' brass-and-flesh creations.
One word of caution: Mechanique is a stylistically challenging book, that uses lots of clever tricks to open up the world to the reader. The narrative alternates between third-person past tense and first-person present tense — occasionally dipping into second-person present tense. The narrator occasionally slips in foreboding sentences, encased in parantheses, almost as if a second, gloomier, narrator were inserting chunks of unwelcome insight. The good news, though, is that these devices actually do enrich the narrative — and more importantly, they become transparent pretty quickly, so that you stop noticing after the first 20 pages or so.
Plus it's all in the service of a great story, and Valentine's prose is strong enough to carry you along while still astonishing you with the occasional lovely turn of phrase. (And there are also gorgeous illustrations, by the talented yaoi artist and occasional io9 contributor Kiri Moth.)
In a world of genre mashups and postmodern genre conflations, Mechanique is something unique and elegant. It's an artful book that asks important questions about art and creation, that you'll be left pondering long after you've closed the last page. Like a circus, Mechanique shows you confounding, thrilling sights, and then moves on, leaving everything almost as the book left it.