Fiction review: Mechanique

Publisher: Prime Books
Reviewed by Belle Cooper
Cover read "Mechanique, A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti" with a picture of mechanical wings.“THE MECHANICAL CIRCUS TRESAULTI
Astounding Feats of ACROBATICS
the World has ever SEEN
No Weapons Allowed”

One thing is immediately clear as one starts to read Mechanique, the freshman novel by Genevieve Valentine: that this is not going to be a typical novel. Even before you reach the text of the Circus Tresaulti’s advertising poster (quoted above), you find yourself directly immersed in the spectacle of it all: the lights, the dancing girls, the jugglers, all covered in a fine layer of glitter and metallic gleam. I mean that quite literally; the second paragraph firmly establishes a second person voice, inviting the reader directly to come watch the show.

Mechanique is the story of the Circus Tresaulti, a travelling show of steampunk-esque cyborg acrobats directed by the enigmatic Boss, making its way through a post-apocalyptic world decimated by centuries of war.  The plot hinges on two equally important threads: an archetypical government man who wants to harness the power of the circus’ technology for his own gain, and the battle between two of the performers over a coveted pair of bone-and-copper wings.  It’s the story of the struggle for freedom and for home, and of what a person is willing to give up of themselves–their name, their past, their life, their very humanity–in order to find and keep those things.  It’s about life and death, about power–both that which is struggled and fought for and that which is given unasked–and about the beauty in invention and in the grotesque.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the novel is the structure, at once methodical and highly variable.  The narrative is told in the first, second, and third persons, bouncing effortlessly from present to past tense as it weaves through flashbacks and flashforwards, the timeline cycling back on itself in a manner reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. While the transitions between narrative voices is jarring at first, they’re not illogical.  The first person sections are all from the perspective of Little George, the circus’ barker and Boss’ protege in the art of creating the half-mechanical performers.  The third person is used for the other members of the circus, and for the government man, and the second is reserved for world building and establishing shots.  The plot itself is eked out in fits and starts, scattered in hints and foreshadowing across the first half of the book, which is made up primarily of anecdotes to establish all of our players, before it really dives into the central conflicts. This is not an easy method of storytelling to maintain, yet with very rare exception Valentine manages it, and manages it well–the changes between voices and journeys back and forth across the intricately woven timeline are made organically once they’ve been properly established.  The only criticism I have in regards to the unique style of the work is the use of parenthetical asides, tangents that at times wander too far away from the central plot and may go on for paragraphs and even pages before finally bringing us back to the actual scene.  Still, this manages to be mostly charming, albeit distracting, and only really detracts from the readability on one or two occasions.

Overall, the prose and the plot both perfectly reflect the main attraction of the work, the performers of the Circus Tresaulti itself: the flying girls with hollow copper bones, the strongman with a spine made of bits of scrap metal and gears, the musician who’s more instrument than man.  With a subtle refrain, Valentine sets up an almost musical pace, her stylistic flourishes and quirks like the silver overlay bedecking the dancing girls, the golden watch inlaid in the strongman’s spine.  They’re tricks and pretences, set in place over top a dark, twisted core of madness, death, and resurrection, of war and the costs of true power, true beauty, and true freedom.

Mechanique is not a novel for everyone.  But for those looking for something different to read, something that plays with the conventions of storytelling and of steampunk, with vivid if chilling descriptions and strong, not always likeable characters, it should prove quite a treat.

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