Skycircus

Please note that this review may contain spoilers for earlier instalments in this series. You can read my review of these novels by clicking the links below:

Cogheart | Moonlocket

Skycircus was written by Peter Bunzl and first published in 2018. It is part of The Cogheart Adventures series, which focuses on the adventures of a girl, a boy and a mechanical fox in a steampunk Victorian England. The novel follows Cogheart (2016) and Moonlocket (2017), and I would recommend reading the novels in sequence if you want to have any idea what is going on.

It is Lily’s birthday but she is not feeling especially festive. Instead of a party, her father has called together a gathering of his fellow machinists and Lily is finding it particularly dull. When she overhears some of the discriminatory views that some of them hold to towards hybrids – the so-called half-mechanicals like herself – she decides that she needs to get away. Luckily, a chance for escape and adventure comes in the form of an invitation to the circus.

Slimwood’s Stupendous Travelling Skycircus has just arrived in the village for a single night and some mysterious stranger has sent Lily three VIP tickets, along with a notebook that seems to have once belonged to her mother. While Robert suspects some kind of trap, Lily knows that they still need to investigate. Her mother died when Lily was small and she is dying to learn more about her.

Yet Lily really should have listened to Robert. The circus turns out to be a terrible place, run by the money-grabbing Mr Slimwood and the cruel Madame Lyons-Mane. Their performers include a small group of hybrid “freaks”, all of whom are hideously mistreated, and they have some terrible plans in store for Lily and her cogheart. As the circus sets off to Paris with Lily and Robert as prisoners, they must find a way to escape and get home. If Madame Lyons-Mane is able to put her plan in motion, Lily’s first performance could very well also be her last…

While I was really excited to get a hold of Skycircus, I was left feeling a bit disappointed upon reading. While I did enjoy the book on the whole, there is no hiding that it was the weakest instalment of the series to date. The story this time focuses on the concept of hybrids, which is something that previous novels have touched upon but never truly explored. It finally managed to get across what the public concept of “half-mechanicals” was, clearly detailing the benefits of being able to use technology to save lives while at the same time making clear why people felt it was immoral.

While this does echo some real world attitudes towards medicine, it was all delivered in a very subtle and neat way that never felt overly heavy-handed. While some of the ideas and terms presented in the novel are a little complex for younger readers, the book always took the time to briefly explain them and, as always, contains a two page glossary of terms in case you need a brief reminder about who Ada Lovelace was, or what function a roustabout performs within a circus.

Yet the novel still felt as though it was lacking something fundamental. While the centrepiece of the circus did set it apart from its previous instalments, it also caused the series to lose a little bit of its charm. While the mechanicals are still very important to the story, there was less focus on the steampunk Victoriana this time around. The story did not feel quite as big as previous instalments, in which Lily faced off with sky pirates and foiled an attempt to steal a jewel from Queen Victoria. Instead, Lily and Robert spent almost all of the story trapped within the sinister circus. Personally, I felt that this was a bit of a shame. The setting of the previous stories is what made them stand out. Skycircus unfortunately seemed a bit more generic.

It’s hard for me to put a finger on what it was about Skycircus that I did not enjoy, but I think that my problem was two-fold. First was the pacing. While the previous instalments of the series both offered some kind of mystery for the characters to solve, this was oddly lacking in Skycircus. Due to this lack of any kind of focus, the story felt as though it moved in fits and starts. Although the story began with the curiosity of the notebook and ended in a thrilling big-top finale, between these the plot slowed to a crawl and I found that it did not really keep my attention.

My second issue was the weakness in the story’s science. While I accept that this is purely a personal issue, I did find that I was having a harder time “buying into” the world-building of this novel. While I could accept the existence of a perpetual motion machine and artificial heart in Cogheart, the existence of a girl who could fly with metal-feathered wings due to her “light bones” stretched my suspension of disbelief a bit too far. In a novel that name-drops such great thinkers as Nikola Tesla, Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley, I wish that more time had been spent detailing their contributions to science, literature and womans’ rights to young readers. It felt a bit like Bunzl cherry-picked the most outlandish parts of their beliefs, such as flyology, and left out the truly interesting stuff.

I also felt as though the novel wrapped up all loose ends a bit too neatly. The climax of this story felt a bit rushed, especially as Lily came to terms with everything that had happened to her with remarkable ease. I do not know if Skycircus is intended to be the final instalment of the series as the villain does indicate that she and Lily will meet again, but there certainly was an air of finality to the story. All threads were tied off without conflict, leaving very few obvious hooks for a future novel.

In terms of character, I also felt that the story had a few problems. Skycircus introduced a large number of new characters but did not really take the time to develop them. Much like with Tolly in the previous story, I kept expecting these characters to play a more pivotal role than they ultimately did. Lily befriended the other hybrids and dispelled the distrust between them and the ordinary folks incredibly quickly. The villains of the piece also failed to make an impact on me. The ultimate mastermind did not really appear enough to make an impression, while the more direct baddies were purely motivated by greed.

The protagonists also did not fair very well. Robert did not get a lot of development in this story, as his arc seems to have come to a natural end in Moonlocket. However, I will admit that Lily does do a little better. While I felt as though her story was pushed to the side during Moonlocket, this time around she does at least get the space to confront her feelings towards the cogheart. The story addresses this in detail, making clear how exhausting her secret is and encouraging her to fight for what she believes in. I especially liked the way that the novel used a somewhat adapted version of the legend of Icarus to explore this, turning it into a story about picking yourself up when you fall and always trying again.

Anyhow, I’m starting to ramble so I guess I will wrap this up. While Skycircus does have some nice moments, it was still my least favourite instalment of the series to date. The pacing felt weaker this time around, I missed the Victoriana, and the new characters did not get enough time to shine. I’m not sure if this is going to be the end of the series, but I’m sadly no longer as excited to find out what will happen next.

Skycircus can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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