I liked Julius Romeros Extravaganza Part I by Hayley Lawson Smith very much. It was in the top ten of the books I read for 2013, and I consider it one of the best circus novels that I've ever encountered. I reviewed it on this blog in the entry called The Julius Romeros Extravaganza: Liminal Identity at the Circus. The first novel had a much lighter tone. It poked fun at Victorian attitudes and affirmed the value of circus sideshow performers. Its' narrative arc was like a fairy tale. The story had what seemed to be a happily ever after ending. The second book is quite different. Its tone is much darker. Like Part I, I received this book for free from the author in return for an honest review.
Abigail, the bearded girl of the first novel, has grown into a young woman and flourished under the benevolent paternal guidance of Julius Romeros. Then one day everything changes and Abigail learns that true evil exists in the world, and that villains aren't always bumbling idiots like you find in a satirical farce or a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.
I knew from the fact that the first book was Part 1 that Abigail wouldn't really have a happily ever after ending. Conflict is needed for the purpose of storytelling, and the rather grim story line of Part 2 is much more typical of how sideshow performers lived in the real world of traveling circuses during the Victorian period.
I wanted to believe that this couldn't have happened to the characters described in the first book. The characters didn't believe their situation either. This is how evil can obtain a foothold. People who are accustomed to everyone behaving in a reasonable civilized fashion can never believe that anyone could be completely ruthless. There is also the phenomenon of learned helplessness that happens to people who have been beaten down and convinced that they are worthless. This is why people stay in abusive situations. They no longer believe in themselves, and don't think they can survive on their own. Hayley Lawson Smith describes how Abigail and other performers become victims of the learned helplessness syndrome very credibly.
At that point in the narrative, I said to myself that this book could be very inspiring for readers who are being abused if the characters completely overcame their situation. Unfortunately, we don't know what happens because Part 2 ends with a cliffhanger.
An author who decides to end a book with a cliffhanger is taking a risk. Some readers will feel compelled to buy the next book because they need to know what happens next. Other readers feel that cliffhangers are manipulative and that this is an overused device in series. A certain proportion of the readers in the second category may be so annoyed by the fact that the book ended on a cliffhanger that they will never purchase a book by that author ever again. Authors need to consider that they will be alienating a part of their audience when they end their books with a cliffhanger.
I care about Abigail, and I'm willing to believe that the inspiring resolution that I was looking for at the end of this novel will happen in the next book. Yet I have to admit that I would have preferred that the plot had gone in a different direction. I have a limited tolerance for dark fiction, and have a strong preference for independent heroines who never surrender to learned helplessness syndrome at any point in their lives even though women faced with abuse are rarely that strong. I believe that women need champions who are larger than life and more courageous than the majority of women. Other readers may feel differently. They may prefer characters drawn on a real world scale who may not be so certain of themselves, and are capable of being undermined.
So when I say that this book is not for me, it doesn't mean that The Julius Romeros Extravaganza Part 2 is a bad book or that it's poorly written. I don't mean to say that at all. I think it's very convincing. I would just prefer to read a different type of story.