It's amazing that I'm discovering such good circus novels this year. If you've read my review of The Julius Romeros Extravaganza by Hayley Lawson-Smith that I posted on this blog last month, then you know that I'm a circus fan. Lawson-Smith's novel focuses on a circus that re-imagines the sideshow. Angel on the Ropes by Jill Shultz is a science fiction novel dealing with a central character who is a trapeze artist in a future that has many commonalities with our present world.
One of my favorite circus novels of all time is The Catch Trap by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In some ways it's the history of a family devoted to the trapeze. Yet the protagonists are Mario and Tommy, who would have been devoted to each other in an era with more enlightened attitudes toward sexuality. In Angel on the Ropes that era has arrived, but prejudice of another type still poisons society. Perhaps prejudice is a human habit of mind that can never be completely eradicated. It will always evolve new forms.
I downloaded Angel on the Ropes from Net Galley and read that the protagonist is a leopard. This led me to the conclusion that she is a shifter who changes into a jungle cat. I'm definitely open to reading about shifters. It's become a very popular feature of urban fantasy. So I thought that the central character, Amandine, lives in a future society where the prejudice du jour is against people who can shift into leopard form. I also wondered if she had a prehensile tail that would let her swing from a trapeze as a leopard. That was a truly awesome mental image. Then I discovered that Amandine is not a shifter and had to push my internal re-set button. Jill Shultz's speculative imagination had gone in a completely different direction. Amandine is a one of a minority of humans who had been born with spots on her skin which resemble a once virulent disease. Leopards are unjustly believed to spread this disease. This is the flawed rationale behind the prejudice against them.
Another important social issue emerges in Angel on the Ropes. Jill Shultz deals with our contemporary concern over the cost of healthcare in a context where medicine is run by giant corporations through showing us a powerful "if this goes on..." scenario that seemed bizarre yet frighteningly real like all of the very best science fiction that I've read.
Even though Amandine lives in the future where the circus incorporates technology whose impact I can only see in my mind's eye, Cristallo, the circus where she performs has historical roots. I relish historical research. When I searched for Cristallo's circus antecedent , Cirque Napoleon , I found this article on Circopedia, which is presumably an equivalent of Wikipedia dealing with the circus. The article also mentioned Jules Léotard, the 19th century gymnast who originated the trapeze act on November 12, 1859. (According to the The Encyclopedia Britannica, Jean-François Gravelet invented the tightrope act that same year.) He was apparently a very popular performer and yes, the leotard was named after him. I also discovered a science fiction connection. There is a graphic novel called The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard in which comics writer Eddie Campbell created a fictional nephew of Jules Léotard for a series of historical circus adventures which included superheroes. Superheroes and the circus sounds like a dynamic duo. I hope to be reading it some time this summer.
Jill Shultz didn't only research circus history. She did some thinking about how futuristic performers would function if they did a retro show which does happen in the course of this novel.She realized that Amandine wouldn't know techniques that are regarded as elementary for circus performers today. This is really good extrapolation.
I saw a reference to a circus language called Parlari in this novel that explains why some of the dialogue sounds foreign. It is not some futuristic slang. Jill Shultz did not invent Parlari. She discovered it through research, and integrated it into her book. I found a brief Parlari glossary at a circus website. I recognized words that are used by circus characters throughout Angel on the Ropes. It's apparently a creole of various languages. It's fascinating, but not unexpected that Romany, the language of the gypsies, is integral to Parlari vocabulary.
With all the things that Jill Shultz did right, I am reluctant to point out that her book has one weakness. I like the concept of what is supposed to be the resolution and I loved the final scene, but we are left hanging without finding out whether the plan for a resolution worked. I imagine that there is supposed to be a sequel, but I like books to stand on their own. This book is really unresolved. That is my only objection to an otherwise excellent novel.